Top 100 players of 2014: Nos. 50-31
37. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (F, 22)
2012-13 stats: 31.2 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.7 SPG, 49.4 FG%, 37.4 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 16.4 PER, 6.2 Win Shares, +1.5 RAPM
Plenty of players recalibrated their reputations during the 2013 playoffs, but Leonard is right there with Stephen Curry in a two-man race for best postseason breakout. The Spurs’ third-year forward is famous for rarely speaking, so we’ll gladly step in to shout his credentials: 13.5 points, nine rebounds, 1.8 steals, 55 percent shooting and 39 percent three-point shooting in 21 postseason games (San Antonio went 15-6). Not enough to impress you, even though Leonard turned pro after his sophomore year at San Diego State and slipped to the middle of the first round? Leonard shot 51.3 percent and had four double-doubles in seven Finals games against the Heat, playing unflappably despite intense pressure, up-and-down offensive performances from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and the toughest defensive assignments imaginable.
When Leonard missed a key free throw in the closing seconds of regulation during Game 6, a shot that could have helped seal the title, he produced one of the purest “you can’t blame him because his team never would have been there without him” moments in basketball history. The focus here has been on his spring/summer coming-out party, but Leonard was a key cog in San Antonio’s machine all season, putting up a comically high +10.1 net rating. Gregg Popovich has indicated that he plans to retire whenever Tim Duncan does; Leonard’s potential, paired with Parker’s prime, makes a strong case for Pop to think twice about that exit strategy. — B.G.
36. Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers (F/C, 33)
2012-13 stats: 33.8 MPG, 13.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.2 BPG, 46.6 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 16.7 PER, 3.7 Win Shares, +2.4 RAPM
Injury and general malaise took their toll on most every non-Kobe Laker last season, Gasol perhaps most of all. His pairing with Steve Nash never resulted in the dynamism and ball movement intended, as neither was on the court regularly enough to benefit from the presence of the other. Gasol’s chemistry with Dwight Howard was less than ideal, too. While the two finally established a positive working relationship at the end of the season, their collective defense was messy and their offensive workings awkward.
Howard’s departure and what the Lakers hope will be better health from Gasol and Nash could lead to a resurgent season for the Spanish 7-footer. Gasol, one of the most skilled big men in the league, has precisely the kind of refined offensive game that should age gracefully. His playmaking from the post remains worthy of contention for the “best passing big man” title, his touch around the hoop shouldn’t dissipate and his variety of moves from the low block will afford him scoring subsistence even at he declines physically. With Howard no longer competing with him for touches or on-court real estate, Gasol will be free to facilitate and contribute in the ways he finds most comfortable.
There are still legitimate concerns, though, about Gasol’s defensive mobility, which posed serious, recurring problems for the Lakers last season. A move from power forward to center (and, theoretically, from quicker, longer-range threats to more conventional big men) might help if the Lakers decide to play that way, and fully rested knees surely should. But some of that liability is simply Gasol being Gasol, given that the 33-year-old has never been an especially mobile defender and stands to only get slower from here on out. — R.M.
35. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies (F, 32)
2012-13 stats: 15.4 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 1.4 APG, 46 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 17.9 PER, 7.9 Win Shares, +1.4 RAPM
“I’m a jacking dude,” Randolph told 92.9 FM in Memphis, after an on-court confrontation with Kendrick Perkins last November. “I’m pretty good with these hands.” Few NBA players could make such a Mike Tyson-like claim without inciting some “He’s just a phony tough guy” blowback. With Randolph, a powerful power forward who seeks out contact like a long-lost friend, everyone just nods respectfully and agrees.
After losing a good chunk of the 2011-12 season to a knee injury, Randolph returned to double-double land for the sixth time in seven years. Although his numbers didn’t rebound to the 20-and-12 territory he enjoyed in 2010-11, he still earned his second career All-Star selection. Randolph is not Memphis’ most indispensable player — that title belongs to center Marc Gasol — and he’s not known for individual excellence in the Grizzlies’ strongest suit (tenacious defense), but he was Memphis’ leading scorer (not including Rudy Gay, who was traded at midseason) and his personality birthed the organization’s “Grit and Grind” identity.
The Grizzlies enjoyed their most successful season in franchise history and their first trip to the conference finals because their combination of elite team defense and Randolph’s physicality was simply overwhelming for the Clippers and Thunder. Finally, the Spurs swarmed him relentlessly, refusing to allow him to take over like he did against L.A. (21/8) and OKC (18/11), but there’s no shame in that.
Randolph’s contract expires in 2015, and Memphis has constructed and maintained its veteran, well-balanced core so that championship contention should be a possibility in each of the next two seasons. The league as a whole still hasn’t figured out a way to keep him off the glass and there still are no complete answers for his precise, creative post moves and soft-touch finishes. Long-battered opponents will say a private word of thanks when Father Time eventually comes calling for Z-Bo. — B.G.
34. Josh Smith, Detroit Pistons (F, 27)
‘12-13: 35.3 MPG, 17.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.8 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 46.5 FG%, 30.3 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 17.7 PER, 4.2 Win Shares, +3.4 RAPM
It’s fair to wonder whether a player who fits Smith’s current profile will be able to exist in the NBA 10 years from now. This generation’s elite players, LeBron James and Kevin Durant in particular, have shown the value of carefully honing their skills and allowing statistical consultants to help guide their development. In an evolving, ultra-competitive league full of copycats, it seems unlikely that a player with Smith’s type of incredible skill would be able to develop — or not develop — like he did during his nine years with the Hawks.
In 2023, will there be a player capable of leading the league in defensive win shares and posting a top-10 PER at his position who is openly booed and mocked by his home crowd virtually every time he lines up a long two-point shot? In 2023, will there be a talented player who tunes out that direct, negative feedback so thoroughly that he winds up leading his team in scoring even though he takes a full 50 percent of his attempts from areas where he is a mediocre or poor shooter? Or will these obvious aggravations become extinct? Smith has been stuffing box scores for playoff teams for six years now, and yet the inevitable sense is that he could be so, so much better if he ever “got it.”
What Smith got this summer was a four-year, $54 million contract from the Pistons and one massive, badly needed change of scenery. The Palace will be cheering his defensive heroics, highlight-reel blocks and transition excitement from Day One, and it’s possible that Pistons fans will be rooting for a playoff team for the first time since 2009. One can’t help but wonder, though, how long it will take Detroit to turn on his shot selection. A bad shot is a bad shot, no matter the zip code. — B.G.
33. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors (G/F, 29)
2012-13 stats: 34.7 MPG, 13 PPG, 5.4 APG, 5.3 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 45.1 FG%, 31.7 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 15.2 PER, 5.6 Win Shares, +4.1 RAPM
One can very easily make the case that Iguodala is both the league’s best and hardest-working defender, given the mastery he shows in challenging elite offensive players on a full-time basis. His work essentially begins when the ball is inbounded, if not earlier; Iguodala devotes a lot of energy and attention to denying his man the ball. From that initial disruption, he has every tool necessary to prevent easy attempts: length, agility, strength and a tirelessness that allows him to play the long game. Even then he can’t fully shackle the likes of Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, but he handles such threats better than most and respects defensive process like basketball gospel.
Such commitment bears out in the results. According to Synergy Sports, Iguodala held opponents to only 37.8 percent shooting last season, even though he spent the vast majority of his minutes guarding incredibly dangerous opponents. He’s also flexible enough to split his time between a few different positions. He might cross-match to cover a point guard, stay glued to a high-priority wing or switch over to impede a versatile power forward. He gives up points and makes mistakes, as all great defenders do. But there are few — if any — better than Iguodala at what he does best.
He’s also a far better offensive player than advertised, largely because Iguodala struggles in obvious ways while flourishing more quietly. Iguodala has underwhelmed as a first-option scorer and prominent ball handler, but his solid work as a complementary playmaker and fine cutter goes largely undersold, primarily because it doesn’t yield bloated averages or warrant sanctioning as “the man.” He is a helpful offensive player, set to bridge gaps and provide assistance across the board in Golden State as he did in Denver. — R.M.
32. Paul Pierce, Brooklyn Nets (F, 35)
2012-13 stats: 33.4 MPG, 18.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 43.6 FG%, 38.0 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.1 PER, 7.2 Win Shares, +3.8 RAPM
The Truth endures. For all the talk of how Pierce had taken a step back last season, the final balance reflected a productive, high-usage creator who more than held his own defensively. Pierce is no longer suited to handle the rigors of being a team’s first option on offense, but he’s closer to stardom than irrelevance despite his age-related slip. In fact, the only players to meet Pierce’s per-game averages in points, rebounds and assists last season were LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Pierce obviously doesn’t come anywhere near those two in overall value or scoring efficiency, but his vague statistical proximity demonstrates his special value as an all-around player.
Pierce brings varied, high-level contributions as his situation demands. When Rajon Rondo played last season, Pierce balanced out the lineup by averaging 20.6 points on 16.4 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes. But when the All-Star point guard went down with an ACL tear, Pierce responded by attempting fewer shots and doling out an impressive 6.5 assists per 36 — an increase reflective of his necessary role adjustment. Less will be required of Pierce as he joins the Nets, but with that comes the freedom to do a bit of everything.
He’ll have his options. Pierce is one of the best playmaking wings, a valuable scorer and a feisty — if slowed — defender. He shoots, he drives, he posts and he draws fouls, all at a proficient enough level to justify the investment of possessions. — R.M.
31. David West, Indiana Pacers (F, 33)
2012-13 stats: 33.4 MPG, 17.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 49.8 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 20.1 PER, 9.1 Win Shares, +3.4 RAPM
Third wheels don’t get much better than West, who made one perfect decision in signing with the Pacers in 2011 and then another by re-signing for $36 million over three years this summer. With Paul George, a perimeter star in the making, heading up the offense and Roy Hibbert, a massive center, setting the tone on defense, the fit for West couldn’t be better.
It’s crucial for a No. 3 guy to have an all-around game to complement the top dogs and contribute where the roster might be weak. West, a versatile scorer and lunch-pail rebounder, certainly does those things. He’s capable of going to work in isolation on the block or stepping out to face up; he’s strong enough to hold defensive position down low and agile enough to track his man to the high post. Importantly, West also aces the mentality test: He isn’t so dominant that he breaks up the offense to get his looks, and yet he isn’t so passive that you can’t count on him to get a bucket on a big possession.
West, Indiana’s No. 2 scorer last year, strikes the right medium, as he is able to chip in without demanding or deferring. He’s there, reliable and capable, but he’s not in your face. He leads without ego. When the two-time All-Star declared that he wanted to return to the Pacers moments after losing to the Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, there was no absolutely reason to doubt him. Even after just two seasons, it was impossible to imagine him anywhere else. — B.G.
|Top 100 NBA Players: Nos. 100-31|