10. James Harden (24-years-old)
There seem to be rumblings that Harden has regressed in his second year as the face of the Rockets franchise, and that is true to a degree – he is getting to the line less (from 10.2 to 8.8 per game), dishing out fewer assists (5.8 to 5.3), and shooting a career-worst 32.9% from deep. However, Harden’s efficiency has not dipped appreciably overall (his TS% is identical, and his eFG% is incredibly similar), and his foul drawing and playmaking abilities remain well above-average.
And for all of the hand wringing over flopping, Harden has all but earned his salary by showcasing an elite ability to get to the line. He does so by attacking the paint fearlessly, and utilizing a few moves (the Eurostep chief among them) that allow him to remain in the act of shooting for longer than most. Regardless of how you may feel about a game being reduced to free throws, the fact remains that Harden generates a ton of value by getting to the stripe – and no guard is within two free throw attempts per game of him, which is simply staggering. In fact, Harden is fourth in the NBA in free throw attempts per game, behind only Kevin Durant, teammate Dwight Howard, and DeMarcus Cousins.
Defensively, Harden may just be the laziest star in the league. He is often content to settle for a swipe at the ball instead of bodying up his man, and he rarely fights through screens. I often wonder if this laziness stems from being backed up by at least one of Serge Ibaka, Omer Asik, and Howard every year of his young career – but that is not a satisfactory excuse for his level of passivity. He has shown the strength and headiness to be an at least competent defender in the past and, given his otherwise strong game, I am willing to grant him an iota of the benefit of the doubt, and hope that he has it in him to play decent defense when he needs to.
Basically, if you felt that Harden proved his mettle as a franchise player last year, then nothing should have changed in the interim – unless you are quite certain that he is now a below-average shooter from deep.
- Domenic L.
9. Stephen Curry (25-years-old)
Mouthwatering efficiency, constantly improving play-making skills and seemingly unlimited shooting range. Are you interested yet? As far as “total package” offensive players go, Curry is right near the top of the list. He’s probably a below-average defensive player, but considering that many of the best point guards in the league are pretty sloppy defensively too, it isn’t as big a deal as it seems, especially when Curry is putting up the offensive numbers that he is.
The only point guard with a higher TS% than Curry’s 60.1 is Goran Dragic (60.6), and the only players to have a higher AST% than Curry’s 37.8 are Chris Paul (49.9), Kendall Marshall (44.2) and John Wall (37.8), though it’s worth noting that neither Paul nor Marshall have played as many games as Curry, so their numbers may be a bit skewed. Furthermore, Curry is a ridiculously good 3-point shooter, ranking 1st in 3-pointers made per game and 3rd in 3PT% amongst players who make at least two 3-pointers per game.
He’s more than just a fantastic shooter, though. Curry ranks 9th in FG% on drives to the basket amongst point guards who attempt at least 4 drives per game (this has both Dragic and Eric Bledsoe counted as point guards), and comes in 11th in free throws attempted per game amongst point guards, showing that he isn’t afraid to go to the rim and draw contact. (These stats were accurate as of the All-Star break.)
With his assists per game totals continually rising, and him consistently passing the eye test, it’s safe to say that Curry is well passed the “shooting guard in a point guard’s body” stage of his career, as he keeps proving himself to be a fantastic play-maker and an absolute scoring machine. He’s a nightmare match-up for any point guard that has to guard him, and unless he’s slowed down by injuries, there’s no reason to believe that Curry can’t be one of the two or three best overall point guards in the league for the majority of his prime years.
8. Kevin Love (25-years-old)
Over the last year or so, evaluation of Kevin Love has transmogrified into a referendum on his ability (or, more accurately, inability) to carry his team into the playoffs. The phrase “empty stats” is thrown around with gusto, as the Timberwolves are once again below .500, and six games out of the eighth and final playoff spot. With twenty-nine games remaining, a hell of a lot can change for the Timberwolves – but I’m not quite sure that that should change how we view Love.
Love is an offensive powerhouse, ranking third in the NBA in PER, third in offensive win shares, and fourth in offensive rating. His 25.8 PPG places him fourth in the league, and he pours in points efficiently, with a 58.8 TS% (eighth among all forwards). He does this by drawing fouls at a well-above average rate (and hitting 82.2% of his shots this year), and hitting a lot of threes at an above-average rate (especially from the left wing). And while he is not anything special at the rim, he has improved markedly in the restricted area, where his 57.5% rate is a career high, teetering on the edge of above-average.
Despite taking more threes every year, Love remains an elite offensive rebounder, pulling them down at a strong 9.4% clip (which is a career low). He has maintained excellent defensive rebounding numbers throughout his career, as well, and is currently leading the NBA in that metric. Some argue that he cheats a bit for boards, slacking off of his man for a chance at the ball, and while that may be true to some extent, he is a technical marvel at position himself and timing his jump.
Defensively, Love is actually a bit underrated. He may not know the meaning of rim protection, but he is a competent man and zone defender, and he is solid at defending the pick and roll. He is currently 20th in the league in defensive win shares, and his defensive rating places him near the middle of the pack among all forwards.
It is a fair point, I suppose, that none of this has been enough to lead the Timberwolves to the postseason – there is no arguing the fact that Love has a well below .500 record for his career. However, it is also quite clear that he is an elite overall player, placing in the top five in PER and offensive win shares in each of his last three full seasons. And I would be quite happy building around his strengths.
- Domenic L.
7. Dwight Howard (28-years-old)
On the heels of Howard forcing his way out of Orlando and then ditching the Lakers for the Rockets, there seems to be more negativity surrounding him than anything else. People who’ve never met him can’t stand him, and many don’t believe he’s as good as he used to be. The latter is a fair point, and may be true, but whether it pains you to admit it or not, Howard is still elite. He’s not the durable monster he was when he first entered the league, and there are some question about his athleticism potentially already declining, but the production is still there.
Defensively, even if not as dominant as he once was, Howard’s numbers are still fairly impressive, as he’s ranked 4th in rebounds per game, tied for 12th in total rebound percentage, 8th in blocks per game, 14h in defensive rating and 8th in defensive win shares. Meanwhile, offensively, he’s still a very efficient scorer, ranking 3rd in field goal percentage and just outside the top-20 in TS% (the latter of which suffers due to his poor free throw shooting, but he’s still very good at drawing fouls, with only eight players attempting more total free throws this season, so him going to the line as often as he does is still valuable, because even if he isn’t making a large majority of his free throws, he’s at least putting opposing players in foul trouble).
He may not be everyone’s cup of tea as far as personality is concerned (especially when he starts becoming visibly unhappy), and that’s a very important aspect of a team sport, but nobody is perfect. Building a team around Howard shouldn’t be too difficult a task, as he’s still a pretty dominant force on both ends of the floor, and hasn’t shown any significant signs that he plans on slowing down anytime soon.
6. Blake Griffin (24-years-old)
At first blush, Griffin may not be doing anything this season to suggest that he has improved all that considerably. His basic numbers aren’t all that different from his career norms, and he isn’t eye-poppingly brilliant in any one category. Upon closer inspection, however, Griffin is currently sitting at career highs in points per game, PER, TS%, offensive rating, and WS/48 – and he’s among the very best in the league in each and every one of these categories.
So what changed? In short: everything.
With each passing season, Griffin improves his jumper and his post moves, making the transition from athletic marvel to borderline offensive powerhouse. The explosiveness is still there, of course, and many of his points still come from outrunning or jumping over the defense – and that’s what makes him so dangerous. He has always a marvel on the fastbreak, and he has become an above-average player in the half court, to boot. That is a rare combination, and at only 24, more improvements could be on the way.
Griffin’s increased confidence in his free throw shooting has added another element to his game, as well. Over the last two years, we had seen him shy away from contact, preferring to pass out of the post or settle for an ugly floater. Now, Griffin absorbs the contact while going hard to the basket, and even attacks the areas of the floor where it is more likely that a foul will be called. His 70.5 FT% ranks in the lower-third of all forwards, teetering on the line of passable – but he is fifth in the NBA in free throw attempts per game, which makes the lower success rate a bit more acceptable. At the very least, he is rapidly becoming a more reliable option at the end of games.
His offense is not just limited to scoring, either. Griffin is an elite playmaker for his position, ranking second among power forwards in assists per game and assist percentage. When Chris Paul missed an eighteen game stretch between January and early February, Griffin took on increased ballhandling duties, and did so quite well – he averaged 4.4 assists per game, with an assist to turnover ratio just under two. He is also quite skilled in kicking the ball out and jumpstarting a two or three pass sequence to set up an open shot, which does not show up on most stat lines.
Griffin has blossomed on defense, as well. He is not a shot-blocking presence, despite his leaping ability and quickness, but most every other facet of his defense is quite good. Griffin is a very good pick and roll defender, anticipating screens and helping on the back end of the sequence. His lateral quickness allows him to stay in front of his man and help close off passing lanes, and he has shown flashes of brilliance in drawing charges. He is not a lockdown defender by any stretch of the imagination – but he is a tick above-average, and improving.
Despite missing his first season with a scary knee injury, Griffin has been nothing but durable since making his debut, and his improvements are undeniable. He is an elite overall player, and a player any team can build around. At this point, the only question is this:
How much better can he get?
- Domenic L.
5. Chris Paul (28-years-old)
His injury history and proximity to the age of 30 don’t play in his favor, but it’s hard to pass up on the best point guard in the league. Like every other player, Paul isn’t perfect. Other than injury concerns, some also have questions about whether he’s too stubborn to alternate his, and thusly his team’s, style-of-play, even if a change may be more beneficiary. It’s a pretty common opinion that the Clippers would be a better team if they played a faster, more athletic brand of basketball, something they’re certainly capable of doing considering the big men on their roster. Paul, however, prefers to control the game as much as possible, reverting to a slower-paced, more patient offensive style. It’s also entirely possible that Doc Rivers is at fault here, assuming he’s letting Paul run an offense that may not best suited for their team. If Rivers really does prefer a fast-paced style, but is still letting Paul play his way, it’s hard to blame the player and not the head coach.
But enough about possible controversy. When it comes to production, Paul’s is at an incredibly high level. He’s without a doubt one of the best all-around point guards to ever set foot on the hardwood, averaging 18.6 points per game with a 57.7 TS%, 9.9 assists per game and is grabbing 7.1% of available rebounds for his career (which is pretty absurd for a player who is listed at only 6’0”). He’s a fantastic play-maker, seemingly always thinking about how to best set up his teammates first and scoring himself second. The beauty is that, unlike other point guards who are at times too passive, Paul isn’t afraid to take on the scoring load when necessary, doing it in a very efficient manner.
Ultimately, it can be argued that he should be a bit lower on this list because of the aforementioned injury history and age, but what can’t be argued is the production he gives you, the leadership he brings to any team he plays on and the overall almost insane competitiveness that he comes with. As cliché as that is/sounds, it’s also true. CP3 really is like another coach, who also just happens to be the best player on the court almost every time he steps on it.
4. Paul George (23-years-old)
It’s rare that a player as young as George is already considered a star on both ends of the court but that’s exactly the case here. In his 4th NBA season, he’s already putting up an MVP-caliber season, producing great overall numbers offensively, while having a significant impact on the best defensive team in the league. It’s hard to envision George being anything other than a perennial All-Star for the majority of his career, with some MVP-like seasons sprinkled in-between. He may never actually win the award, but he will most certainly be amongst the top vote-getters often enough to make it a relevant accomplishment when evaluating his career as a whole.
It’s hard to find a true weakness in George’s production. He’s currently scoring 22.7 points per game with fantastic efficiency (57.0 TS%); is rebounding fairly well for his position (grabbing 9.8% of available rebounds); sets up his teammates when needed (he isn’t always asked to do this, but when it’s necessary, George can get the job done as a point-forward-type). He also gets to the line almost six times per game this season, an area of his game that he’s been improving every season he’s been in the league (same applies to this FT%). Lastly, George is a very versatile scorer—obviously an important attribute for a player whose team relies on to be the focal point of the offense—shooting at a league-average or better rate from all areas of the court.
Ultimately, George probably never reaches the LeBron/Durant-level, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with playing at the level that’s just below it; an all-around small-forward without any major weaknesses in his game and still room for improvement is more than you can realistically expect from almost any player, and there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that George can’t continue being just that for the majority of his career.
- Ran. (Unanimous pick.)
3. Anthony Davis (20-years-old)
“The Brow” is already taking the league by storm despite being “raw” and more “athlete than basketball player.” Assuming those are fair characterizations of Davis—and you won’t hear many arguments denying them—it’s absolutely frightening that a player who is seemingly learning to play on the fly (for lack of a better term) is producing at the level that Davis is currently producing at.
Other than not having 3-point range (which isn’t a necessity but it’s certainly nice to have in today’s NBA), there isn’t anything that Davis doesn’t do well when you consider his age and limited time in the league. He’s already averaging over the “magical” 20 points per game number that everyone loves so much, and is doing it in a very efficient and diverse manner. Having attempted over 700 total field goals this season, more than 200 of them were taken from outside the paint, and even though he’s only shooting at a league-average percentage from mid-range (at about 42%), it shows a great deal of versatility from a player who will be expected to be the focal point of his team’s offense for years to come. It’s also perfectly reasonable to expect him to continually improve on that league-average mark when, once again, you take his age into consideration.
It really is more than just scoring, though. Davis leads the league in blocks per game with a staggering 3.1 and is amongst the league leaders in opponents’ field goal percentage when he’s protecting the rim (about 46.6%). He also comes in ranking 5th in PER and 12th in Win Shares; even if you don’t exactly believe those two stats to be gospel (nor should you, really), it’s hard to achieve such high placements on those lists by accident.
Nobody truly knows what Davis’ potential really is, but it’s pretty clear by now that if he reaches it, we’re going to be witnessing one of the best players in the history of this sport; one that will have a significant impact on both ends of the court, and who will bring to the table athleticism rarely seen before.
- Ran. (Unanimous pick.)
2. LeBron James (29-years-old)
With most people probably figuring out who will be number one and two on this list, not much explanation is needed for the last two picks. There isn’t anything to say about James that every basketball fan doesn’t already know. The only possible concern here is age, but even that isn’t looking like it’ll slow down The King anytime soon. He’s having the most efficient season of his career (65.6 TS%), and while he’s taking fewer field goal attempts per game than ever before, he’s still virtually unstoppable offensively. Many wondered if James’ decline would come as his freakish athleticism left, but his improvement as a 3-point shooter over the past few seasons should quiet those who are having such doubts.
Even if/when he does start declining as a scorer, James still possess excellent passing, rebounding and defending abilities, along with a great overall understanding of the game, suggesting that he’ll be able to contribute in a number of ways as he starts reaching his mid-to-late-30s.
- Ran. (Unanimous pick.)
1. Kevin Durant (25-years-old)
Whether you believe that Durant is in his prime or only entering it, the fact that he’s already putting up absurd numbers as a 25-year-old is nothing short of scary. His scoring efficiency places him in an elite group of players, ensuring that he’ll go down as not only one of the most lethal scorers of his era but one of the greatest and most efficient players we’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, because of his seemingly effortless scoring ability, Durant is often unfairly judged as far as other areas of his game are concerned. It isn’t as common an opinion as it was a few years ago, but some fans still don’t realize that he’s much more than just a scorer. For his career, he has been almost just as good a rebounder as LeBron James (grabbing 10.4% of available rebounds compared to James’ 10.8%), has forced slightly fewer steals per game (1.3 vs. 1.7), but blocks a bit more shots per game (1.0 vs. 0.8). Durant is also a much better floor-stretcher and free-throw shooter than James, and while he may not be the overall impact defender that the reigning MVP is, he’s a damn good one himself, utilizing both his length and athleticism to disrupt opponents.
The gap between the two isn’t as big as people think and it’s probably closing with each passing season. It’d be understandable if someone preferred to go with James first overall, because right now, he’s still regarded as the best player in the league by most; but anyone who has a problem with someone else preferring Durant in this scenario is being naive. It wouldn’t shock me at all if a few seasons from now Durant becomes a close to unanimous pick for best player in the league, and the one you’d want most going forward. In fact, expecting that to be the case is far from a stretch.
- Ran. (Unanimous pick.)