Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Most Entertaining Players in the NBA, Part I


More than any other professional sport, the NBA is driven by its individual talent. The great and unique aspect in this is that this doesn’t necessarily just mean superstars. While LeBron James drives TV ratings through the roof, there are a host of players out there who are must-watch in their own right. And so we arrive with Daniel and Elijah’s ranking of the most entertaining players in the NBA for this 2014-15 season.

Daniel made his debut on Bases and Baskets about a month ago with some bold predictions for the new NBA season and is ready to follow it up by going head-to-head with Elijah’s heavy-hitting opinions (jokes, people...). Seriously though, this should be fun with his Kobe homerism and my (proud) Kobe hating tendencies.

We broke a quantitative ranking of the most entertaining NBA players into three categories. Each category was on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most entertaining in that category), and were the following:

Star Factor

Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird. These guys transcended just the game on the floor. These are the guys you tell your grandkids you watched play. Those guys fall around a 10 give or take nothing. Some guys have pull just because of their name. For perspective, Klay Thompson and Ricky Rubio are around a 5 or a 6.

WTF Factor

This is the Dennis Rodman/Ron Artest factor. There are always those guys that are ticking time bombs, you never know when they’re going to take a trip to North Korea or jump into the stands and beat up a fan. Also could apply to a “WTF just happened Kobe scored 20 in the third quarter against the Warriors”, or “WTF, could a random guy on the street have a legitimate chance to shoot a higher percentage from 15 feet or beyond than Ricky Rubio?” This is an all-encompassing WTF.

Unique Factor

Some players do things you just shouldn’t be able to do. Vince Carter jumps through two gyms. Anthony Davis can block a shot, dribble the length of the floor, and pull up for a jumper. Dwight Howard’s shoulders could level a small car. Players that score highly in this ranking are those who want to watch because you might never see another guy like him.

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We had some ties, so this top-10 is actually a top-11, but let’s jump right in.

10. Kyrie Irving

Daniel Fotinich: We agree! I can’t even believe it. Maybe this column will be more boring than I was anticipating! Kyrie is a pretty simple case of entertaining - he’s an electric point guard who can get to the rim in a flash at any moment. For three years, he played on a team that totaled 78 wins and didn’t sniff prime time because his best sidekicks might’ve been Dion Waiters, Tristian “making an extra $15m because I hired Dan Fegan three years ago” Thompson, and Andrew “I actually shot from beyond the half court in a practice scrimmage just to get cut” Bynum. Now that he’s on a team with LeBron and Kevin Love, seeing Kyrie in the playoffs is a virtual certainty for us! Are you excited yet?!

But seriously, one of the most exciting subplots of the season is how will Kyrie mesh with James. Kevin Love seems like a simpler case - he’ll be getting less touches (but shooting more 3s), while rebounding as he did normally, which seems like the way it’s playing out thus far. Irving is more complicated. He’s spent the past 3 seasons as by far the primary ball-handler for the Cavs, essentially dictating the entire offense. Imagine you play a pick up game and you’re playing on a team of scrubs, so you basically get all of the shots. Next game, a really good player joins your team. Wouldn’t you feel a bit weird suddenly giving up the ball to him? Now imagine instead of one pick-up game like this, you’ve played 226 straight on a team of scrubs. It’s a pretty major adjustment

Elijah Abramson: I wasn’t entirely shocked that we agreed on someone like Kyrie. There’s no doubting his stardom, I dropped him in as a top-25 player in 2015 in my latest ranking. His ball-handling and scoring make him an incredibly entertaining player and I scored him an 8 for the “WTF Factor” just because he can break you down quite literally. Brandon Knight’s ankles are still healing from the moves the Cavs guard put on him in 2013:


Zach Lowe made a great point on The B.S. Report with Bill Simmons on the 11/11 podcast that I think is at least partially valid: Kyrie could be destined to be this era’s version of Stephon Marbury or Steve Francis. All three of those guys are incredible basketball talents who were me-first players to a fault. You know who this reminds me of… Kobe Bryant! The difference is that the all-around skillset that Kobe brings to the table supersedes the My-Way-or-the-Highway stars a la Franchise or Starbury.

No doubt that the Kyrie-LeBron dynamic is one to watch throughout the season for this very reason. Hopefully Kyrie’s peak isn’t as the best guy on a 44-win team (as Lowe suggested), and David Blatt can make it work. If he can’t, GM LeBron will have Kyrie shipped out to sea.

Fotinich: We’re barely 300 words in and Kobe is already in the conversation?! That definitely speaks to his star power (more on this later).

I’m excited to see what David Blatt cooks up in Cleveland. So far, the results have been uneven to say the least, but the first few games of a season rarely mean too much (besides for the 76ers, who should be eliminated from the playoffs for the next five years after that game against Dallas). Isn’t it phenomenal that a 6’8” small forward might actually be better at playing point guard than Kyrie? Should they actually let LeBron play point at times?

Regardless, I think this team could win the East based on talent alone. They’re actually getting -140 odds to win the East even though they’re 5-4! Nobody in the league is as stacked as the Cavs – they have a top-4 PG, a top-3 power forward, and the best player on Earth. Save for Oklahoma City at full health, they are by far the most talented team in the NBA right now.

10. John Wall

Abramson: John Wall and Russell Westbrook are in a category of their own in terms of athleticism and basketball talent. These guys slice through defenses like, in the words of the great Wiz Khalifa, it’s nothin’. And it’s fun to watch.

Derrick Rose would be in this Wall-Westbrook conversation as athletic-basketball freaks but I find Rose’s recent comments disgusting… Worried about his knees and ankles for meetings and his son’s graduation?? Are you kidding me?! This guy is making tens...maybe eventually HUNDREDS of millions, and he’s worried about his knees? I don’t even want to start talking about how ridiculous this is. I’m with Charles Barkley, these comments were just plain stupid. This is veering off topic but I just had to say something about him and didn’t want to write a full column on it. Thankfully he won’t grace this ranking of the NBA’s most entertaining players.

Fotinich: I haven’t caught too many Wizards games this year, but I watched them slice up Chicago last year before succumbing to the reincarnated-for-one-series Roy Hibbert in round 2. One thing that I noticed is that Wall has excellent court vision; he seems to know when a shooter is going to be open for a corner 3 about 5 seconds before it actually happens, and he hits that pass every time. Not to mention that he’s an athletic freak who gets to the rim at will. He can even shoot 3s now (after shooting 7.1% in 2011-12)!  Hold on, how is it possible that 2010 Kentucky had John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe on one squad and didn’t even make the Final Four?

I couldn’t agree more about Rose. After experiencing knee surgery recently I wouldn’t wish chronic knee problems on anybody, but plenty of people work who in oil fields and copper mines suffer from chronic respiratory conditions (among many other issues) for years after they retire while making less than 1% of what Derrick Rose will make this year. I feel sorry for Chicago fans. Every single projection about Chicago as a top-tier contender includes the phrase “if Derrick Rose is healthy”, and his attitude doesn’t give me a bit of confidence that this day is coming.

9. Ricky Rubio

Abramson: Ricky Rubio??? This one is all you. You ranked him five spots ahead of me. More entertaining than Klay Thompson? Melo? Kevin Love, sure, but there’s no way I’d rather watch Rubio than Melo or Klay. Ditto for the two guys tied for 10th in this ranking. Rubio’s flashy passing will get a fair share of oohs and aahs but there’s no way I’m putting much stock into a career 37 percent field goal shooter. I may be a Warriors fan but let me quickly give my reasons for Klay: vying for a spot in the league’s scoring leaders, stellar perimeter defense, and an ability to drive and finish at the rim. Plus, an entire episode on Comedy Central could be devoted to nothing more than a montage of his facial expressions.

Rubio is in double-digit assists for the first time this year which is far from a surprise but that’s really all he can do. I’ll pass this one off to you because Andre Iguodala’s classic did-I-really-foul-that-guy pose is about how I’m feel on this Rubio ranking.

Fotinich: Less entertaining than Klay Thompson?! Watch this tape - the entire nine minutes, please:


This tape speaks for itself. There’s a reason there is nine minutes of killer footage in just a year and a half of play (the tape was put together in early 2013). Come on, Rubio’s the most exciting passer the league has seen since Jason Williams, forever and always known as White Chocolate. What’s most impressive about watching Rubio is just how quickly and nonchalantly he does these passes. If somebody asks during a Wolves game, “Wait, did Rubio just pass that ball between Nic Batum’s legs?” I’m not the least bit surprised. Passers like this come around maybe every ten years.

I was very surprised that the Timberwolves extended Rubio before seeing some improvement this season, even though the rising salary cap makes an extension far less of a burden. I argued in my bold predictions column that the extension would occur after the year, seeing as it made sense to wait to give $10m/year to a career 37% shooter, but the Wolves clearly thought otherwise, mainly because of his superior passing skills. Regardless of whether he will improve as a shooter, his passing is box-office. He probably isn’t even the best passer in the league today, but he is the most entertaining one.

Abramson: No doubt that this guy’s passing is as entertaining as it gets. He brings that streetball-esque play to the NBA that is definitely reminiscent of guys like Jason Williams and Steve Nash. Like you, I gave him a very respectable 8 on the WTF Factor. I just don’t look at him as a star (gave him a 5). Maybe a 6 was a bit strict in terms of the unique factor, but I think he’s not on the Curry-Durant-LeBron-BG level of a 9-10.

In terms of the extension, the inevitable spike in the salary cap makes $13m/year look less impressive than it would in years past. And others predictions of Rubio’s worth in the eight-figure realm made it seem surprisingly reasonable. Amin Elhassan preached the Rubio gospel last month on The Lowe Post, as well. Personally, I’d rather watch Klay go on one of his regular unconscious shooting tears and much-improved aggressiveness in attacking the rim, but I can definitely appreciate Rubio’s entertainment value.

8. Lance Stephenson

Fotinich: I seriously can’t figure this guy out. When Lance is fully engaged, he’s a two-way demolition derby, capable of scoring 25 while locking down any of the top wings in the league. When he isn’t engaged, you get 2 points in 27 minutes such as in the game against the Pelicans a few weeks ago. He’s one of the most maddeningly inconsistent players out there, which definitely makes me worry about my prediction that he will average 20/5/5 this year (his rebounds and assists are there, but the points could use some help). He’s also a headcase - I’d be shocked if there was a coach in history who ever said “I’d love to coach Lance Stephenson!” - which probably cost him $15 million this summer.

However, this is what makes him so entertaining! He’s literally a ticking time bomb. In the past eight months, Lance fought with teammate Evan Turner in the locker room and blew in LeBron James’ ear, while being completely unapologetic afterwards. He’s definitely entered Simmons’ “Tyson Zone”. What headline would you need to see on ESPN regarding Lance to be surprised - “Lance Stephenson slaps teammate Al Jefferson in the face after argument over a $50,000 poker loss”? That wouldn’t shock me. And his flop against Harrison Barnes last week? It might be described “unethical” or as  “an embarrassment to the league”... but I’d describe it as “hilariously entertaining”.

Abramson: So you’re ready to drop the ball on that 20-5-5 prediction that you thought was a virtual lock? Or what about that virtual lock for the All-Star team?

He definitely hasn’t fit in as well as was expected with the Hornets, something that has a lot to do with the fact that he misinterpreted what his role was going to be. With Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson already having made Charlotte a viable playoff contender, Lance’s antics weren’t going to suddenly grab the reigns and start running the franchise (which is what Born Ready was ready to do). However, his place among the most entertaining players is without question. We know that he brings energy, passion, and a wild side to the floor that is capable of landing a headline on any given night.


But for reasons like this flop, I would argue Lance’s entertainment value has a lot to do with self-deprecation. There’s a reason that YouTube’s second-ranked autofill to “Lance Stephenson flop” when you type in his name. (First is that horrendous rap he did a few months ago.) But hey, if self-deprecation is your thing, Lance, you’re doing fabulously well in entertainment value!

Fotinich: It was a bold prediction for a reason - it wasn’t likely to happen - but it was definitely one that I felt confident in. I’m not throwing in the towel yet even though he’s 10ppg behind… Lance, start shooting more!

There are so many “what-if’s” you can think about with Lance. What if Lance was drafted by his hometown New York Knicks? On one hand, he would have a much larger platform for his self-deprecating entertainment. On the other hand, would he have ever become as good of a player as he is, or would he be too busy doing Lance Stephenson things? To some extent, I think Lance needs to stay in a small-ish market just to remain sane. If not, he’ll soon be being mentioned in Nicki Minaj lyrics. Oh wait, that already happened? Never mind.

7. Anthony Davis

Abramson: I’m somewhat surprised that AD is this low in the rankings. The man can do anything...and I mean anything, on a basketball court. Block shots, steals, jumpers, finishing around the rim, his numbers are on par with some of the best centers/power forwards in league history. This makes for the perfect recipe for an entertaining player because he gives you that knowledge that you’re going to see something spectacular...you just don’t know in what facet. This is why I gave him a 9 in WTF Factor...because he’s the type of player that somehow has the ability to surprise you even when you know it’s coming. Time for you to explain that 6 you gave him in WTF...

Fotinich: His stats alone this season probably justify more than a 6. 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game on 56% shooting? Those are Shaq c.1995 numbers. I guess the reason I gave him a relatively low rating is that when I watch him, he doesn’t quite look as dominant or physically imposing as some of the greats. He averages those numbers as under the radar as he possibly can. Basically, he seems like the polar opposite of Dwight Howard. He’s an amazing player, but he’s not as entertaining to watch as those numbers might suggest.

People usually talk a lot about draft busts, but what about the players that turn out exactly how they were projected to be? An NBA draft report in 2012 summarizes the thoughts of most analysts pre-draft, saying that he has “Fluid athleticism, incredible length and guard agility in a 6’10 package.” Is that not the most perfect description of Anthony Davis in the NBA? Its amazing that Damian Lillard won Rookie of the Year in 2012-2013 as a unanimous selection.

Abramson: Not as fun to watch, eh? That’s what I like to call the Michael Jordan Syndrome in full effect. We’ve become so accustomed and attracted to high-flying, scoring-machine, ball-handling wizards that attention spans for the game’s bigs has decreased dramatically since the early 90s. There are exceptions to this rule (a la Hakeem and Shaq) but for the most part people don’t find the Duncans and Big Al’s box office whereas guys like Kobe/Curry/Durant/LeBron/Wade and even, as you mentioned, Oakland native Damian Lillard are revered. Davis’ game is not even a traditional center’s game but some people still find him not-so-entertaining! (Not me, I gave him 9-9-8 in our three-category ranking).

This is absolutely not to say the star guards shouldn’t be appreciated, because we all know that they are great players and fun to watch, but the ADs of the world just don’t get much love. As someone who watches the vast majority of Warrior games, I get a similar thrill off of a Bogut beautiful pass as I do a crazy Steph-back three..


Oh wait, I got a Curry 3 and a Bogut dime off of that. I guess it’s Monta Warriors-have-it-all.

Speaking of which, Stephen A. Smith needs to watch more than just LeBron James play if he’s going to be considered an NBA expert. The fact that he recently called Bogut “not Bogus” and said that “there’s actually a purpose to him being on the basketball court” (four minutes into this clip) is such a joke. Anyone who has watched more than two minutes of Warriors basketball knows how valuable he is both offensively as a playmaker and defensively as a stopper. I’ve gone so far as to say (which I stand by), that Bogut is the Warriors second most valuable player. Not to mention this is the same video where Stephen A. proclaims Curry his favorite player to watch! You’d think he actually watches his favorite player’s team play...

As for draft projections, I disagree because I remember similar pre-draft sentiments for AD that there were for KD because of size. People said that he was “very slender, even for the collegiate level” in that very projection article you are referring to. DraftExpress, on the other hand, did say his best-case scenario was Blake Griffin meets Tyson Chandler.

Crazy as it may be, that could be underselling him.

6. Kobe Bryant

Fotinich: It doesn’t seem like we have much to argue in regard to Kobe’s entertainment value, though I did rank him tied for 3rd. Tim Duncan might have an argument that he, not Kobe, is the most decorated active player, but there isn’t a doubt in my mind who is more entertaining to watch. I’ve been watching Kobe since I was a kid, and I still yearn for more. Although he’s never been a physical freak such as the likes of Anthony Davis or LeBron James, he makes up for his relative lack of size and speed with impeccable footwork and timing. Guys who have been watching Kobe since they were in high school somehow still fall for his pump fakes often enough that even in his 19th season, he’s third in free throw attempts. He does take some (OK fine, many) misguided shots, but when they go in, even Laker haters can’t help but be amazed. If any other player in the NBA took the kinds of shots that Kobe makes regularly, they would be shooting below 30% for their career. There isn’t a player in the league right now  who can hit shots on a double team like prime Kobe did. Admittedly, 2014 Kobe isn’t prime Kobe, but he’s pretty close.

If those words don’t describe just how entertaining Kobe Bryant is, maybe numbers will: $48,500,000. That is how much Kobe is getting paid over the widely panned two-year extension he signed in November 2013. Most critics of the extension focused on how it supposedly prevented the Lakers from signing notable free agents this summer (as if both LeBron and Melo were coming to LA regardless), but these critics missed a crucial point. Kobe is being paid because people pay lots of money to see Kobe Bryant play basketball. The Clippers are a championship contender, feature superstars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, while the Lakers might not win 25 games this season. Somehow, Laker tickets are still selling for significantly more than Clipper tickets on StubHub. Kobe is entertainment personified. Many people would argue he should be no. 1 on this list.

Abramson: How appropriate that we end Part I of our most entertaining players with Kobe Bryant. It perfectly epitomizes his place in the NBA currently. He’s in that upper echelon of second-tier players, but no longer in that discussion of the best of the best. Kobe is incredibly fun to watch...but not really for the same reasons as it used to be. At this point, it’s almost like watching a soap opera rather than a basketball game. Even complete with potential break-ups! (Kobe to the Knicks rumors pervaded NBA discussion in past weeks.)

I want this out here for the record. He is shooting 39.2% from the field right now. 28% from three. Basketball is a game of efficiency. I’ll save this for perhaps another column but there’s no weasling around it...these are putrid numbers. The fact that Kobe can make shots fading away in the corner where the ball comes from behind the backboard is box office but serves no legitimate basketball value when he’s making less than 40% of those types of shots.


It’s good that you see he takes awful shots, but to say that it’s impressive when he makes a few...not sure. Statistically speaking, he’s bound to make some of his crazy shots. And yes, he’s third in free throws, but that’s meaningless. His usage rate is a league-leading 36.4%!! I looked up volume in the dictionary the other day and there was a picture of Kobe Bryant staring back at me.

One last clarification: you meant to say that many Kobe fans (and/or Laker fans) would argue he should be no. 1 on this list.

Fotinich: I can’t disagree regarding Kobe’s shot selection this year. I attended the Lakers-Warriors tilt several weeks ago when Kobe scored 44 points while the Lakers lost by 21. Since it was the first time I ever had premium seats to a Lakers game, I wanted to get a good photo of Kobe shooting. Thankfully, I had plenty of opportunities. Kobe took 24 shots in the first half alone - more shot attempts than anybody else is currently averaging over an entire game - finishing with 34 shots despite sitting out the entire 4th quarter. Plenty of these shots were double-teamed long-two’s, deep 3s, well-covered layups, etc..basically, the types of shots that appear in the nightmares of any high school basketball coach and Daryl Morey.

Despite that, the audience visible tensed whenever Kobe attempted a shot, and erupted in cheers every single time one went in. At one point, he even got a small “MVP!” chant while shooting a free throw (which he then missed, preventing the chant from going for the second free throw). Realize that we are watching a player in his 19th season, after having played over 46,000 regular season minutes and coming off of two major injuries, score over 20 points per game while competing with guys significantly more athletic than him. This is history in the making; don’t even attempt to find a better 19th season from an NBA player - you won’t find one. Kobe might not lead the Lakers to any sort of relevance this year, but the fact that he’s still able to play the way that he does is remarkable.

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Our combined scoring (60 maximum) for ranks 7-10 was as follows:

7. Bryant - 51
8. Davis - 50
9. Rubio - 43
10. Irving/Wall - 42

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