Posted September 19, 2013

Top 100 players of 2014: Nos. 50-31

Ben Golliver, Rob Mahoney, Top 100 players of 2014
Damian Lillard

Point guard Damian Lillard (left) led the NBA in minutes played as a rookie last season. (Greg Nelson/SI)

The Point Forward is proud to offer our list of the top 100 players in the NBA, an exhaustive exercise that seeks to define who will be the best players in the 2013-14 season.

Given the wide variety of players involved and the deep analytical resources available, no single, definitive criterion was used to form this list. Instead, rankings were assigned based on a fluid combination of subjective assessment and objective data. This is an earnest attempt to evaluate each player in a vacuum. As a result, future prospects beyond this season did not play a part in the ranking process, while the influence of team context was minimized to whatever extent was possible. Our sole concern was how players are likely to perform this season alone.

Injuries and injury risks are thus an inevitable component of that judgment. Past performance (postseason included) weighed heavily in our assessment, with a skew toward the recent. Rookies were not included for that reason, among others. A predictive quality also came into play with the anticipated improvement of certain younger players, as well as the possible decline of aging veterans. Otherwise, players were ordered based on their complete games — offense and defense both, along with everything in between.

Our countdown of players Nos. 100-51 can be found here. For our list of players who just missed the cut, click here. And for those interested in understanding more about the ranking process and the limitations of this exercise in general, make a quick detour here. On Wednesday, we’ll unveil Nos. 30-21, followed by Nos. 20-11 on Thursday and Nos. 10-1 on Friday.

A quick introduction for those not familiar with some of the “advanced” statistical measures used below:

PER (Player Efficiency Rating)PER is a per-minute summary of a player’s efficiency and performance, weighted so that a league-average player registers a 15. It generally skews in favor of big men and does not account for defensive contributions that don’t show up in the box score.

Win SharesA metric that uses box score data to estimate the total number of wins a given player contributes. Last season, Win Shares ran on a scale of -1.5 (Michael Beasley) to 19.3 (LeBron James), but only 10 players finished with more than 10.

RAPM (Regularized adjusted plus-minus) — A variation of plus-minus that compares the on-court impact of every NBA player to a league-average standard (0). The adjustment helps account for much of the statistical noise that exists in raw plus-minus measures.

50. Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves (C, 27)
2012-13 stats: 31.6 MPG, 16.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 52.0 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 20.2 PER, 6.7 Win Shares, +2.0 RAPM

Former Timberwolves president David Kahn was constantly up to something during his four years on the job, and much of it proved to be pointless and/or disastrous. One clear win: bringing Pekovic, a 2008 second-round pick, to the NBA in the summer of 2010. The signing didn’t create a ton of noise at the time, and if it was mentioned it was generally lumped in with Minnesota’s earlier acquisition of Darko “Manna From Heaven” Milicic. Unlike his fellow Balkan center, one of the biggest draft busts in league history, Pekovic has found his footing as one of the NBA’s better big man.

Pekovic is a traditional center who understands that his job is to score around the rim, draw fouls and clean the glass. He ranked in the top 10 among centers in PER and posted career highs across the board last season. More than 88 percent of his shot attempts came in the basket area, a testament to his discipline and ability to consistently establish low-post position. His hulking physique makes for an eye-popping first impression, but Pekovic has some niftiness to his footwork and ball fakes, too.

After signing the Montenegrin center to a five-year, $60 million extension this summer, Minnesota pitched Pekovic as one-half of its “Bruise Brothers” duo with All-Star forward Kevin Love. Injuries have kept that pairing from hitting on all cylinders at the same time, but they promise to offer a nightly nightmare to opposing front lines, especially those opting for small-ball looks, for at least the next couple of years. — Ben Golliver

49. Andrei Kirilenko, Brooklyn Nets (F, 32)
2012-13 stats: 31.8 MPG, 12.4 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 50.7 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 17.6 PER, 6.0 Win Shares, +2.5 RAPM

Kirilenko is so active as to border on omnipresent. On defense, his movement and hyper-awareness manifest as a constant influence; his long arms threaten to deflect passes or rush shot attempts; his edging toward the ball shrinks the opponent’s gateway into the paint; and his knack for sniffing out play actions makes him a threat to apply pressure at any juncture. He’s not just a threat to lock down a single scorer, but also an all-around defensive talent whose skills translate in amazingly broad fashion.

On the other end, Kirilenko compensates for his lack of shooting range (he converted only 31.8 percent of his attempts outside the paint last season) with an immaculate understanding of how to manipulate defenders. For that reason, few players are better equipped for motion-style offenses. While Kirilenko isn’t a threat to break down opponents off the dribble, his combination of cutting, ball handling and passing make him a nightmare to pin down in a half-court setting. He’s especially potent while working the baseline, an area of the floor where he takes advantage of even the slightest defensive inattention:

Such plays come with startling frequency and often without any prescribed directive. In that, Kirilenko’s expert cuts are a variant of traditional shot creation — not as obvious or accessible as a ball handler creating something out of nothing, but helpful all the same in breaking down defenses. — Rob Mahoney

48. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans (G, 23)
2012-13 stats: 37.5 MPG, 17.7 PPG, 8.0 APG, 4.2 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 43.1 FG%, 36.8 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 16.7 PER, 3.3 Win Shares, +0.7 RAPM

The Sixers’ decision to trade Holiday to the Pelicans for No. 6 pick Nerlens Noel and a future first-round pick on draft night prompted an immediate and sharp debate. Supporters liked the idea of scooping up a slipping Noel, hording assets and tanking for the 2014 draft. Detractors wondered why a team building for the future would want to part with a 23-year-old All-Star, two-way point guard who just completed a career year, has no off-court red flags and is locked into an affordable rookie extension (four years, $43 million) until 2017.

The debate really boils down to differing takes on Holiday’s ceiling: Is he a future No. 1 guy for a winning team or is he “merely” a top-10-caliber point guard who will be consistently above average, but not quite elite? Philadelphia needed the former but New Orleans seems content with the latter, as the Pelicans will belong fully to Anthony Davis soon enough. Holiday’s durability, ability to create for himself and others, leadership intangibles and desire to work defensively will all be welcome in New Orleans. – B.G.

47. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (G, 23)
2012-13 stats: 38.6 MPG, 19.0 PPG, 6.5 APG, 3.1 RPG, 42.9 FG%, 36.8 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 16.4 PER, 5.8 Win Shares, +0.6 RAPM

Lillard is best known for his step-back jumper and steady demeanor, but there really should be more talk about exactly how far he has come over the last 18 months. Consider this: Lillard had just 2,000 followers on Twitter in April 2012, a few months before he was the No. 6 pick in the draft out of little-known Weber State. Now, after winning the Rookie of the Year award, leading the NBA in minutes and starring in a few national television spots, his following tops 226,000. All those new eyeballs want to see big things from the Blazers’ point guard, who seems to take pride in heaping expectations on himself. His goals this season include an All-Star appearance, 46 wins (after 33 last year) and a postseason berth, which would be Portland’s first since 2011.

If he is to achieve those objectives (or even some of them), Lillard will need to take major strides defensively, cut down on his long two-point attempts and improve his finishing in the basket area, where he shot just 50 percent last year. A bolstered Blazers bench should help reduce his workload and give him more distribution options. Lillard’s rapid ascension puts him in position to take the franchise’s reins from LaMarcus Aldridge, if and when the Blazers’ All-Star power forward decides it’s time for a change of scenery. — B.G.

46. David Lee, Golden State Warriors (F, 30)
2012-13 stats: 36.8 MPG, 18.5 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.5 APG, 51.9 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.2 PER, 9.1 Win Shares, +1.4 RAPM

Lee has become the NBA’s preeminent punchline defender, perhaps to the point of drawing a bit more criticism than he deserves. I don’t mean to put that too kindly; it’s out of fairness I’ll note that Lee isn’t the worst interior defender in the league, but he is so very bad as to torpedo his ranking. For a dual post-up/pick-and-roll offensive threat who produces at such volume to rank in the mid-40s is indicative of a rather serious problem.

Opponents often go out of their way to pick on Lee by making him defend on the move. He actually does a credible job of shuffling and contesting when his assigned man has control of the ball, but the longer he’s forced to defend space (such as in a drawn-out pick-and-roll sequence), the sloppier his coverage tends to get. This is not an uncommon problem among big men, but Lee is in a particularly rough spot because he’s so unintimidating around the basket. His poor preemption and lack of athleticism make him a non-factor as a shot blocker (he averaged 0.3 blocks per game last season), and unlike other ground-bound bigs he doesn’t ever square up to take charges (he drew just three all season, according to Hoopdata). That leaves him without much means to defend the hoop when opponents come barreling into the paint.

Moreover, Lee seems to have trouble charting his path as a help defender in general. He’s pretty consistently one or two steps out of optimal position. Even with Golden State’s defensive system designed to compensate for the team’s slower big men, Lee still tends to play back too far on the pick-and-roll. This isn’t to say that his task is easy; finding the right spatial balance is a consistent challenge, as different opponents require certain adjustments in coverage, to say nothing of the varying angles and possibilities involved. But Lee too often gives room to opponents he shouldn’t, compromising his ability to offer much help at all. He’s such an intuitive player in so many other respects, but Lee’s poor feel for defensive spacing comes at a clear cost to the Warriors. — R.M.

Danilo Gallinari

Forward Danilo Gallinari was the Nuggets’ second-leading scorer last season. (John W. McDonough/SI)

45. Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets (F, 25)
2012-13 stats: 32.5 MPG, 16.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 41.8 FG%, 37.3 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 16.7 PER, 7.2 Win Shares, +3.8 RAPM

This ranking might seem a bit kind in appraising Gallinari’s contributions to the Nuggets’ specifically, but some of his faults and inefficiencies are the result of an ill-fitting role. To be frank, Denver has needed Gallinari to be a more frequent creator than his skill set justifies. He’s still capable in that overstretched role but would be better served with less responsibility. That bears out in his early experiences as a supporting part in New York, where he posted an effective field-goal percentage that was about four points higher than his average in Denver. The Nuggets’ pace of play hasn’t done enough to disguise the fact that Gallinari is fundamentally miscast as a 1B to Ty Lawson’s 1A, though he’s done his best to generate offense with a persistent driving game.

Gallinari (who is set to miss the start of the season while recovering from knee surgery) manages to score somewhat efficiently by getting to the free-throw line about as frequently as Tony Parker and Blake Griffin and even more often than first-option ball handlers such as Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and Deron Williams. That he’s able to work through traffic and earn fouls on such a regular basis translates well for team scoring and opens up shooting opportunities for Gallinari when opponents begin playing him for the drive. He’d be that much more potent if the ball were swung his way by a more gravitational star, but at present he still manages to produce at a fairly high level.

On top of that, Gallinari plays good defense at both wing positions, where he frustrates opponents with his length and tenacity. He’s also big enough to guard power forwards in a small lineup. — R.M.

44. Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats (C, 28)
2012-13 stats: 33.1 MPG, 17.8 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 49.4 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 20.9 PER, 7.7 Win Shares, +1.2 RAPM

Jefferson is an albatross when slotted as his team’s best player. He scores well but can’t put together the combination of volume and efficiency that would overwhelm opponents. He’s one of the league’s better defensive rebounders but struggles in most every other aspect of defensive play. Jefferson produces like a star but is ultimately bound — along with his team — by his own limits.

All of that said, Jefferson led the Jazz to back-to-back top-10 finishes in offensive efficiency, according to Basketball Reference, no small task given the middling supporting cast. Jefferson didn’t quite go it alone (such characterization would be a disservice to Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward, among others), but his post-up play provided the primary engine for a team that had to make do without dependable point guards. Crucial to that effort was the fact that Jefferson — while hardly the most efficient big man in terms of shooting percentages — rarely wasted a possession. His turnover rate (7.3) last season compared favorably with that of catch-and-shoot types, even though Utah would often work through Jefferson ad nauseum on the left block. Quite simply, his volume scoring kept the Jazz afloat.

That doesn’t make up for the fact that Utah was a devastating 9.2 points worse defensively with Jefferson in the game, which brings us back to the conundrum of his basketball existence. He’s a clear offensive talent — too good on that end to be a zero-sum player. But Jefferson is so slow in coverage that it’s fair to wonder if any team could survive his burden to defend at a contending level. Charlotte, which signed Jefferson to a three-year, $40.5 million contract in July, isn’t nearly good enough to put that concern to the test. But his fundamental limitations will loom over the franchise all the same, particularly as new coach Steve Clifford attempts to get his defensive system in order. — R.M.

43. Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks (F/C, 24)
2012-13 stats: 27.3 MPG, 9.8 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 2.8 BPG, 50.6 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 18.7 PER, 6.0 Win Shares, +3.3 RAPM

The irony in Sanders’ unpredictable misbehavior — he’s been known to flip out on referees on more than one occasion — is that he’s one of the most reliable defensive forces in the game. You can completely count on him until … something goes unexpectedly and totally wrong. The numbers are pretty staggering: When Sanders was on the court last season, Milwaukee’s defensive rating was 98.8; when he went to the bench, it sunk to 105.6. With him, a top-three defense; without him, a bottom-10 defense.

In 2012-13, the VCU product finished second in blocks per game, sixth in individual defensive rating and seventh in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. But he’s not exclusively a one-way player. Although he really lacks anything resembling range, Sanders hits the offensive glass hard, finishes plays adequately around the rim and is athletic and mobile enough to set screens and make himself a threat.

Elite defense and “good enough” offense from a young (nearly) 7-footer usually amounts to a dependable formula for long-term success. Sanders’ story is just beginning, and Milwaukee fans will get to enjoy the ride, thanks to a four-year, $44 million rookie extension this summer. — B.G.

42. Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets (G, 25)
2012-13 stats: 34.4 MPG, 16.7 PPG, 6.9 APG, 2.7 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 46.1 FG%, 36.6 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 17.9 PER, 7.4 Win Shares, +0.6 RAPM

Lawson hasn’t received the All-Star acclaim afforded to some of his fellow up-and-coming point guards, but he has already put together a nice body of work during his four seasons in Denver: four playoff appearances (three as a starter), four years of above-average PER, two years as the full-time starting point guard for a top-five offense and one unforgettable “Bernie” celebration. He’s short, quick, crafty, fearless, a decent shooter, and lightning fast with the ball; all of that has been enough to make up for his shortcomings on defense.

This season, his first under new coach Brian Shaw, will make for an interesting reexamination of Lawson’s reputation. If Denver can continue its winning ways without former coach George Karl and with Danilo Gallinari set to miss time with a knee injury, Lawson stands to receive significant credit as the straw that stirs the drink. If not, there are a number of younger candidates eager to claim Lawson’s place in the point guard pecking order. — B.G.

41. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (F/C, 20)
2012-13 stats: 28.8 MPG, 13.5 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 51.6 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 21.7 PER, 6.1 Win Shares, +0.8 RAPM

The No. 1 pick in 2012 had a superb rookie season, but he didn’t enjoy the full hype treatment because of New Orleans’ poor season, a series of minor injuries and the shadow cast by Damian Lillard’s award-winning campaign. The offseason is a good time for “take a step back” appraisals and Davis, a top high school recruit and a dominant force during his one year at Kentucky, is a perfect candidate for such an evaluation.

Davis, 20, won an Olympic gold medal and averaged 16.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes while placing in the top 10 among power forwards and centers in PER and block percentage as a teenager. He can play at least two (if not three) positions, he’s already an excellent finisher around the hoop despite a slender frame that is filling out, and he spent the summer working on adding a mid-range jumper to his arsenal. By the way, if you forget about him for a few seconds, he’s liable to snatch the ball out of the air, dribble coast-to-coast and finish with a dunk for good measure.

If every NBA player were thrown into a draft, Davis would be selected in the top 10, at the very least, given his potential for perennial All-Star play on both sides of the ball and his drama-free, strictly basketball approach. Excited yet? — B.G.

40. John Wall, Washington Wizards (G, 23)
2012-13 stats: 32.7 MPG, 18.5 PPG, 7.6 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 44.1 FG%, 26.7 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 20.8 PER, 4.5 Win Shares, +2.9 RAPM

Watching Wall play often requires having the remote control in hand, as his amazing court vision allows him to thread seemingly impossible passes that are well worth a second viewing. But his playmaking style isn’t channeled merely for entertainment value. Last season, Wall’s presence on the court was the difference between Washington’s scoring at a league-average rate (102.1 points per 100 possessions) and posting — rather decisively — the worst offensive mark (94.8) in the league. Some of that trade-off stems from the dismal quality of Wall’s replacements, but bringing the Wizards’ offense to respectability still stands as an impressive accomplishment.

Even better things could be in store for Wall, whose combination of natural athleticism and passing ability positions him well for further growth. Where he struggles are in matters of feel and patience. While he has the potential to make spectacular plays, Wall doesn’t always fully explore his options before committing to a given course. He occasionally drives into crowds expecting to find a passing angle that never materializes, or puts too much emphasis on beating the defender in front of him rather than the entirety of the opponent’s coverage. These are fixable habits, and Wall, who has played 184 games in three seasons after spending one year at Kentucky, is still learning how to run an offense. He should gain insight into those areas and others as his game matures.

There’s no question, though, that Wall suffers for his lack of a steady jumper, and more specifically his lack of three-point range. He made only 12-of-45 from beyond the arc last season after hitting 3-of-42 the previous season, encouraging opponents to lay back in coverage and wait for his inevitable drive. But even though Wall isn’t directly contributing to Washington’s floor spacing, his style of play enables those who do. Only five players in the league created more three-pointers with their assists last season, according to Hoopdata, and the Wizards shot 40.6 percent from long range with Wall on the floor (Golden State led the NBA at 40.3 percent). He’d make his own work easier if he could develop into a consistent shooting threat, but for now Wall manages to stretch out the defense with dart passes to the wings. — R.M.

Mike Conley

Mike Conley has blossomed as an offensive contributor for Memphis. (Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

39. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies (G, 25)
2012-13 stats: 34.5 MPG, 14.6 PPG, 6.1 APG, 2.8 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 44.0 FG%, 36.2 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 18.3 PER, 9.9 Win Shares, +5.1 RAPM

There aren’t many guards with better two-way balance than Conley. As a defender, he’s often the first obstruction for a Memphis team that ranked second in points allowed per possession last season. Conley is a terror on the perimeter. Though too small to bother an opponent’s shot much, he pokes and prods at every live dribble within reach and creates consistent turnovers. He also does a fantastic job of funneling opponents into the help. That alone makes a world of difference. Understanding the shots and angles that can be logically conceded provides the underpinning for solid, by-the-percentages defense, and during the past two seasons Conley has managed to apply pressure on the perimeter while still channeling ball handlers toward the correct spots on the floor.

He’s also grown into a far more successful shot creator after properly harnessing his speed and on-a-string handle. Memphis’ decision to trade Rudy Gay last January was predicated in part on the notion that Conley could help pick up the offensive slack, and thus far he’s lived up to his end of the bargain. With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph difficult to establish quickly, Conley has become the Grizzlies’ go-to scorer in short-clock situations — a role that would’ve seemed laughably ambitious just a few years ago. Conley ranked as one of the league’s most efficient isolation scorers last season, according to Synergy Sports, essentially doubling his iso scoring return per play from the season before. He’s still not a candidate to score in bulk consistently or a transcendent playmaker by any means, but Conley is fulfilling the Grizzlies’ expectations and has established himself as a reliable offensive piece. — R.M.

38. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks (F, 28)
2012-13 stats: 30.4 MPG, 14.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 49 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.8 PER, 7.6 Win Shares, +5.4 RAPM

Millsap had a rough time distinguishing himself among the glut of talented forwards in the Western Conference, but he still played at an All-Star level for three consecutive seasons. Only Josh Smith matched Millsap’s per-minute production of points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks last season, across-the-board contributions that will make him a bargain for the Hawks on a newly signed two-year, $19 million contract.

Millsap’s malleable game allowed him to thrive alongside Al Jefferson (one of the more difficult big men to complement because of his playing style and weaknesses) and without a consistently helpful point guard in Utah. He scores (17.2 per 36 minutes) without having plays drawn up for him, he is one of the best big men at moving without the ball and he has the kind of range, strength and scrappiness to fill a variety of roles. His consistently remarkable plus-minus ratings in Utah provide further evidence that his raw production and dirty-work offerings translate in a positive way. — R.M.

Kawhi Leonard (right) was impressive against LeBron James and the Heat in the Finals. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Kawhi Leonard (right) was impressive against LeBron James and the Heat in the Finals. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Monday: Nos. 100-51
Tuesday:
50-31
Wednesday:
30-21
Thursday: 20-11
Friday: 10-1

Statistical support for this post courtesy of Basketball-ReferenceNBA.com and Jeremias Engelmann.

Top 100 NBA Players: Nos. 100-31

RANK PLAYER POSITION, TEAM
100. Nikola Vucevic C, Orlando Magic
99. Jarrett Jack G, Cleveland Cavaliers
98. Kyle Korver F, Atlanta Hawks
97. Matt Barnes F, Los Angeles Clippers
96. Danny Green G, San Antonio Spurs
95. Eric Bledsoe G, Phoenix Suns
94. Chandler Parsons F, Houston Rockets
93. Ricky Rubio G, Minnesota Timberwolves
92. Shawn Marion F, Dallas Mavericks
91. Brandon Jennings G, Detroit Pistons
90. Jimmy Butler F, Chicago Bulls
89. Klay Thompson G, Golden State Warriors
88. Goran Dragic G, Phoenix Suns
87. Derrick Favors F, Utah Jazz
86. Vince Carter G, Dallas Mavericks
85. Amar’e Stoudemire F, New York Knicks
84. Amir Johnson F, Toronto Raptors
83. J.R. Smith G, New York Knicks
82. J.J. Redick G, Los Angeles Clippers
81. Kyle Lowry G, Toronto Raptors
80. Lou Williams G, Atlanta Hawks
79. George Hill G, Indiana Pacers
78. Jeff Teague G, Atlanta Hawks
77. O.J. Mayo G, Milwaukee Bucks
76. Jamal Crawford G, Los Angeles Clippers
75. Kenneth Faried F, Denver Nuggets
74. Tiago Splitter C, San Antonio Spurs
73. Kevin Martin G, Minnesota Timberwolves
72. Danny Granger F, Indiana Pacers
71. Carlos Boozer F, Chicago Bulls
70. Jose Calderon G, Dallas Mavericks
69. Omer Asik C, Houston Rockets
68. Monta Ellis G, Dallas Mavericks
67. Gordon Hayward F, Utah Jazz
66. Anderson Varejao C, Cleveland Cavaliers
65. Tyreke Evans G/F, New Orleans Pelicans
64. Rudy Gay F, Toronto Raptors
63. Andre Drummond C, Detroit Pistons
62. Thaddeus Young F, Philadelphia 76ers
61. Ersan Ilyasova F, Milwaukee Bucks
60. Andrew Bynum C, Cleveland Cavaliers
59. Joe Johnson G, Brooklyn Nets
58. Nene C, Washington Wizards
57. Ryan Anderson F, New Orleans Pelicans
56. Manu Ginobili G, San Antonio Spurs
55. Luol Deng F, Chicago Bulls
54. Steve Nash G, Los Angeles Lakers
53. DeMarcus Cousins C, Sacramento Kings
52. Greg Monroe F, Detroit Pistons
51. Nicolas Batum F, Portland Trail Blazers
50. Nikola Pekovic C, Minnesota Timberwolves
49. Andrei Kirilenko F, Brooklyn Nets
48. Jrue Holiday G, New Orleans Pelicans
47. Damian Lillard G, Portland Trail Blazers
46. David Lee F, Golden State Warriors
45. Danillo Gallinari F, Denver Nuggets
44. Al Jefferson C, Charlotte Bobcats
43. Larry Sanders F/C, Milwaukee Bucks
42. Ty Lawson G, Denver Nuggets
41. Anthony Davis F, New Orleans Pelicans
40. John Wall G, Washington Wizards
39. Mike Conley G, Memphis Grizzlies
38. Paul Millsap F, Atlanta Hawks
37. Kawhi Leonard F, San Antonio Spurs
36. Pau Gasol F, Los Angeles Lakers
35. Zach Randolph F, Memphis Grizzlies
34. Josh Smith F, Detroit Pistons
33. Andre Iguodala G/F, Golden State Warriors
32. Paul Pierce F, Brooklyn Nets
31. David West F, Indiana Pacers

2 comments
Mark V.1
Mark V.1

Poor David Lee.  With so many positive things to say about his game, he is constantly bemoaned for the negative.