Thursday, January 9, 2014

Top 10 NBA players of 2014


Despite Michael Jordan and other retired Hall of Famers repeatedly denigrating this league “easier” to play in than previous generations, the top players in the NBA today are as good as they have been in the history of the game. The guys I’m going to mention in this top-10 list are all box-office, franchise players. Part of the fun of being a fan of the game is ranking the best in the game, so with half of the NBA season completed and 2014 just underway, it’s time to start the debate.

The scary thing is that three big-name players won’t be here because of injuries: Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, and Rajon Rondo. The truth is that even if they were healthy, based on how they played just before they fell to injury, I’d say only one player on that list is worthy of consideration for top-10 and it’s probably the last person you would guess…Rajon Rondo. You can chalk me up to a believer that Kobe’s too old to be in this group and Rose’s body just can’t keep up with him. I’d be happy to be proven wrong but that’s a debate for when they return. Now onto the best in the league right now:

JUST MISSED OUT ON TOP-10 STATUS

Because it took so long to decipher who was worthy of this elite status, I think it would be remiss to neglect the guys who are just below top-10. In no particular order, those five are all franchise players in themselves but just aren’t quite at that top-10 level right now. If he can get and stay healthy, one day Anthony Davis could be the best player in the game. That would be a scary proposition for the rest of the league. There are virtually no elite dual-threat offensive and defensive big men, the last of which was a perennial contender and repeated champion, Tim Duncan (who deserves mention in this discussion even at age 37). Pair a guy like AD with an elite guard and maybe you have Parker-Duncan 2.0.

I originally put Flash at no. 9 but as a fan of his, the truth is that he isn’t as good as the guy I put in his place.

THE “WORST” OF THE BEST


Only Los Angeles and Orlando have a right to hate Dwight Howard—and even that is questionable. This guy is a great player and while he may have shot down a couple spots since my top 10 players of 2013 ranking, he’s still the best center in the game. The fact that he’s only no. 10 on this list shows that this has become a league trending away from the traditional center. His per 36 numbers are still incredible at 19 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks per game. Those bricks he throws up from the free throw line are a liability and while we can laugh that his field goal percentage (57) is higher than his free-throw percentage (54), Howard (and the guy at no. 9) still have the Rockets 10 games above .500 in a very deep Western conference.


The other half of the big duo in Houston, James Harden is a superstar scorer. His defense on the other hand…


But in a league where the solution to winning is often scoring more points rather than giving up less, only a handful of the players ahead of Harden on this list are more capable in that category. In fact, if you throw up Harden’s numbers the past two seasons against some of Kobe Bryant’s during his prime you might just be surprised how comparable they are…


The Knicks are terrible. This is a well-known fact. However, this doesn’t take away from just how potent Melo is offensively. 26 points, nine rebounds, 1.2 steals per game on 45 percent from the field and 85 percent from the line is about as good as it gets. Where Melo is often underrated is his mere 2.2 turnovers per game. You’d have to go down to the 15th ranked scorer, Arron Afflalo, to find another non-big man who turns the ball over as little as Anthony. To compound just how impressive that is, Melo uses (a third-highest in the league) 31 percent of his team’s offensive possessions when he’s on the court. You know he’s going to shoot, and you still can’t stop it. Maybe he won’t end up with the Bulls, like I proposed, but he sure is out of New York after this year.

“YOU WOULD BE CRAZY TO TRADE ME” GROUP


The devastating meniscus injury proved exactly how valuable Russell Westbrook is to the Thunder…and his recent re-injury of that same right knee is worrisome. However, his track record of an injury-free college career as well as an injury-free NBA career up until the freak accident against Houston is great and as such I am not worried for him nor his team. OKC’s recent loss to the lowly Utah Jazz (without Westbrook) proves again that as great as Kevin Durant is, he cannot do it on his own. Westbrook’s 21 points, seven assists, and six rebounds per game are hard to make up for even though he is shooting only 42 percent from the field on 18 FGA per game. Wedged right in at no. 7, Westbrook can claim the throne of the NBA’s most explosive player.


I find it remarkable that a guy who is 6’3” and 185 pounds can be so effective as a scorer. If you look at all of the other great scorers in the game, most are substantially taller (LeBron, Durant, Melo, even Harden is 6’5”…) and bigger. But his smooth stroke is what makes him, in my opinion, the most exciting player in the game to watch. And the guy can’t even dunk!! Curry’s shooting numbers aren’t as eye-popping as they were last year, but that should not come as a surprise after the off-season loss of Jack and Landry, and the more recent Iguodala injury. I do expect his numbers to improve since Iguodala has returned and the grueling part of Golden State’s schedule is over. Although it is sometimes at the sacrifice of turnovers, he is also one of the most creative playmakers capable of keeping his Splash brother teammates involved with almost 10 assists per game.


SUPERSTARS


The second-best two-way player in the league, the impossible argument can be made that PG24 deserves the NBA’s most improved player award for the second year in a row. In the span of two years, he elevated from average to star to superstar…that’s not normal. Moreso than any other player not named LeBron, he can do anything and everything on the basketball court. Although Indiana’s impressive record is inflated by the fact that they play in the Eastern conference, the truth is that the expected 2014 Eastern conference finals matchup will be a battle of two top-five players in the league. The main reason he doesn’t land higher in this ranking is because the four ahead of him are established elite players…come back to me after this season ends and maybe he’s climbed up a spot or two in my books.


If I were to draw up the perfect point guard…never mind, that’s not necessary because this guy is basically just that. Floor general, elite perimeter defender, playmaker, level-headed personality, scorer when he needs to be, reasonable outside shooter, and all in a smaller frame than even Steph Curry at 6’0” and 175. The Clippers will be in the heart of the fight for the Western conference if they can hold on while CP3 nurses his shoulder injury. With Doc Rivers and the best PG in the league, (at least until we can see what Rajon Rondo has to say about that) don't sleep on Los Angeles.


Kevin Love’s loyalty to Minnesota thus far is impressive and also eerily familiar to two stars of this era, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, who played for subpar teams for too long. Miraculously, Minnesota is hanging around a .500 record in the West. Like LeBron deserved in Cleveland, you can thank Kevin Love for that. Even more frustratingly, that .500 record would be good for a four or five seed in the East. And like the Kevin that preceded him in Minnesota, Love’s legacy is likely tainted by the fact that he has played with insufficient supporting casts.

The most versatile big man in the game, what’s brought Kevin to the next level of superstardom is his passing. While averaging a career-high points per game, threes made per game, and FG percentage, he’s also nearly doubled his assists per game output. Adrien Kaeslin of Squeeze the Orange delved further into the nuances of his versatility as a passer but here’s a quick glimpse into what he can offer as a passer:


Hey guys, it’s…Kevin!


Seriously though, Durant has had been on another planet this season. The scoring leader had a four-game stretch in December where he put up 30 points on 61 percent from the field, 65 from THREE and 91 from the line. You can’t do that in NBA 2K14. Not only has he been putting up superhuman scoring numbers in the West but he’s also sporting career highs in rebounds, assists, and steals. Durant is the favorite to win the MVP and the clear second-best player in the league, but here’s an interesting thought experiment: put Durant on the Timberwolves and Love on the Thunder…could that answer change? It’s a lot like the Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan debate where what team you’re on matters more than you might think to our perception of an individual player.


Maybe he’s playing it a bit more conservative this year than previously but playing about 100 games in each of the past two seasons allows you to do that. In career low minutes per game, LeBron still averages 26 a game and the usual 7-and-7 assists and rebounds. The real transcendent number would be if he could up his 59 percent from the field to 60 even though almost 50 percent of his shots are from more than eight feet from the basket (per NBA.com/stats). He reminded everybody on Christmas that he’s still a freakish athlete who’s the best, and greatest, player in the NBA in 2014.



8 comments:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lnFGs_Rcgs Steph Curry can dunk just fine?

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  2. Great Article a few things I would like point out. 1. I def think LMA should be in the top 10 he's playing at a level just belowKevin Love when u throw in defense.
    2. James Harden vs D Wade right now is a great debate I'm interchangeable with that subject
    3. So u think Westbrook is more explosive than Bron?
    4. I def like fact that u brought a players surroundings and situation sways our perception or the way we think about players

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  3. He can occasionally throw it down but I've never seen it done in a half court set. So yes, technically speaking, he has done it. I meant on a regular basis.he can't do it.

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  4. LMA was a player I thought a lot about throwing in this ranking but if I did I probably should also mention Tim Duncan in that discussion more formally than I did. I definitely missed some greats in the game today but the focus is really on the top 10 and I'm not sure who I'd take out for LMA...do you think he's better than Dwight?


    As for Westbrook yeah I'd say he's definitely got that raw quickness on LeBron so he's more explosive. LeBron's strength makes him have a larger variety of moves and more potent offensively but I'd say it doesn't give him the position of most explosive player in the league, per se.

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  5. Solid list overall. Thank goodness no Dwyane Wade!!!!! Haha

    Otherwise, I would say that LaMarcus Aldridge or Damian Lillard should be on this list, at least in honorable mention. They are both studs on a team that has surprised many people this year, and they are both top 20 players for certain; I would argue LMA is top 15 for certain.

    Some qualms:

    CP3 at #4? He's injured now also! Of course that isn't his fault, but injuries should count against you when you are being ranked this year, versus a player who has played every game. Meanwhile, PG-24 has led Indiana to their best start in history with a worse supporting cast. I would certainly swap those two.

    Also, KD vs. LeBron has been a debate in which I have recently always chosen LeBron, but I honestly think that THIS YEAR, KD has been playing better! He has led the Thunder to a top 2 record in the west despite missing Russell Westbrook for most of the season, while Miami has more losses playing in the pathetic eastern conference. Additionally, even though PER has always favored LeBron, KD's is shockingly actually higher this year! http://insider.espn.go.com/nba/hollinger/statistics

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  6. I reaaaally had a hard time taking Dwyane out of the list. I'm sure he'll prove me wrong come the playoffs but hey someone's got to underrate the guy right?


    Lillard DEFINITELY is not here yet. He's upped it a bit of late but for a good portion of the season thus far he was sub-40 percent from the field...that's Rudy Gay status right there. He's a cold-blooded surgeon who can hit game-winners and clutch shots from beyond the arc like it's nobodies business but he's not there yet. I wrote an article a while back comparing Lillard to Irving and said that Lillard might be better but he is not elite yet.


    Matt commented with the same issue with LMA being out of the ranking. I had a hard time because if I throw him into the mix then why not the big man in San Antonio...who has a better record than the Blazers! I didn't want to make it a huge thing about the guys who just missed it but I'd say LMA is top-15 for sure as well, probably even 11 or 12.


    I know you love you some PG13 but I'm still taking CP3 over him at this point. CP3 is more valuable to the Clippers than George to the Pacers which is saying something about their respective teams - but we all know the Pacers are a better team than LA. Either way, 4 vs. 5 is a relatively minor point. And while you mention the difference in games played...there really isn't a difference. While CP3 is sidelined now, thus far there's only a 2 game difference between the two. Both are the back-end of the top-5 superstars in the league and like I mentioned, I wouldn't be surprised if PG ends up firmly at no. 3 sooner rather than later.


    Now we get to my favorite part... where, being the First Take fan that I am, I'm going to say you are pulling a Skip Bayless. As Stephen A would say, everything you said is absolutely 100% correct. I would argue that KD has a VERY strong case to be made for the NBA MVP. BUT your point is incomplete.


    KD has two horrendous losses to the Jazz and Nuggets of late despite putting up the usual insane KD scoring numbers. I threw out some of his most impressive runs in my blurb on him and they are other worldly (granted LeBron is shooting 60% from the field which is superhuman as well). Here's where the problem is: LeBron is the king...literally. Two-time defending NBA MVP and Finals MVP with a man-handle on the league. You see the highlights he still has that beast mode in him. He is, to make a funny analogy, getting into a mamba mode. He's waiting and carefully watching his prey. He's sitting in the back seat (as much as a guy like him can) but when he's ready he will pounce. There is absolutely no way that someone would choose to build their team around 2014 Durant compared to 2014 LeBron - or at least in my mind haha.

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  7. I really think lamarcus aldridge and blake griffin need to be a part of this conversation even as a honorable mention!
    They are both playung at elite level and aldridge is showing how far he could bring his team this season.
    And Griffin just need to be mentioned because of his stats.
    While CP3 is injured he is bringing awesome numbers to the table!

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  8. LMA definitely is part of the conversation. My list of honorable mention wasn't a comprehensive one because I didn't want to make it too long. As for Blake, I really don't think he's well-rounded enough yet. I just read a great article on him by B/R's Adam Fromal about how we view him and I still don't think he's an upper echelon player just yet. Maybe bottom off first tier or absolute top of second tier. Put it this way, I don't think he's the type of guy that you want to build an organization around (unlike CP3, KD, LBJ, etc..).

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