The 2015 NBA season is finally underway! One of the classic columns that I’ve written each year since the beginning of Bases and Baskets is a ranking of the best players in the NBA. I decided to expand the ranking from the usual top-10 players to a 30-player ranking. I didn’t quite agree with the ESPN rankings in some parts…but I do think that Lakers legend Kobe Bryant is no longer in this conversation. Here’s Part I, with players 21-30:
30. Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose still has a lot to prove coming off of his second injury in as many years. There’s no doubt that his upside is MVP-worthy, but he needs to show he isn’t the guy who put up bagels in the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
29. Lance Stephenson
Michael Jordan spoke very highly of Lance Stephenson and likes the way that the young guard competed last season with LeBron James. Nobody doubts that he can be a bit of a headcase at times, but his talent is clearly worth it. I’m on board with a 20-5-5 potential from Born Ready. He’s a poor man’s Russell Westbrook who competes on both ends of the floor.
28. Kawhi Leonard
The 2014 NBA Finals MVP has been declared the future of the San Antonio Spurs franchise. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are (very) slowly fading—at least minutes-wise. Kawhi has proven to be a LeBron-stopper who can also score when called upon. As more responsibility is placed on his shoulders, there’s no reason to see he can’t climb up these rankings. I’m not yet sold on him as a franchise player.
27. Klay Thompson
As much as this summer was about LeBron James, Klay Thompson came in a firm second place. The Warriors ended up deciding the value of Thompson as a shooter, defender, and friend of Steph Curry outweighed Kevin Love’s superstar value. Klay has added new wrinkles to his game each season in the league, improving his defense and offensive play-making ability to add to his second-to-none shooting ability. Kobe Bryant spoke highly of the young shooting guard, saying Thompson “has the whole package.”
26. Goran Dragic
Dragic, a disciple of Steve Nash, showed last season that he could contribute and take on the leadership required of a franchise. The Phoenix Suns did not make the playoffs in 2014, but in a loaded Western Conference, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Phoenix kept their core and will only get better behind their point guard(s), Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.
25. Serge Ibaka
The third-best player on his own team, Serge Ibaka is a beast on the interior. Unlike Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka is also an offensive threat and a Chris Bosh-lite. Although Ibaka isn’t a franchise player, there isn’t a team in the league that couldn’t use the talents of Ibaka.
24. Chris Bosh
Always a second- or third-wheel behind LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in his tenure in Miami, Chris Bosh will emerge as the go-to option in 2014-15 for the first time since his Toronto days. Bosh acknowledged on Monday that Chicago and Cleveland are ahead of Miami in terms of talent, but was also quick to point that they have the chance to be a very, very good team. I went so far as to predict a career year from Bosh, and nearly 50-40-90 numbers from him.
23. Al Jefferson
Al Jefferson has to take home the title of most underrated player in the NBA. He doesn’t have that ESPN-ready superstar highlight reel but his post-game is the most-polished in the game (aside from the aging Tim Duncan, who plays less minutes). Hopping from Minnesota to Utah to Charlotte doesn’t help that cause, but I’m expecting big things from the revamped Hornets.
22. Kyrie Irving
An incredible talent, Kyrie Irving will take a back seat in Cleveland for the first time in his NBA career. It will be interesting to see how the shoot-first point guard plays alongside two of the NBA’s greatest stars, LeBron James and Kevin Love.
21. Dwyane Wade
Like Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade has taken a backseat with the acquisition of the now-departed LeBron James. I’m still a firm believer in what Wade has left in the tank even though his knees aren’t cooperating as he would like. He said he didn’t develop an outside shot this off-season which is worrisome, but he’s still just shy of a top-20 player in the NBA.
Stay tuned for Part II!