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.

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.