Top 100 players of 2014: Nos. 30-21
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 in this ranking 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 and Nos. 50-31 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 Thursday, we’ll unveil Nos. 20-11, followed by 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 Shares – A 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.
30. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets (C, 25)
2012-13 stats: 30.4 MPG, 19.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 52.1 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 24.7 PER, 9.0 Win Shares, +3.6 RAPM
Lopez is one of the few big men capable of anchoring a top-10 offense from the interior. Rule changes and trends in defensive coverage have made it more difficult to clear out consistent space for high-volume post threats, but Lopez makes do by exploiting a consistently commanding height advantage. He was Brooklyn’s highest-usage scorer last season, the hub for an offense that endured Deron Williams’ slow start, Joe Johnson’s year-long slump and Gerald Wallace’s descent into marginal utility. The plodding 7-footer was the only real constant, an essential component in the Nets’ 49-win season.
Two crucial adjustments helped pave the way for his success last season. The first came on the offensive end, where Lopez approached pick-and-roll sequences with more balance and poise than ever before. In some cases, that translated to cleaner looks on the move, having made the perfect read to beat his defender to the basket. In others, it resulted in Lopez’s using the pick-and-roll as a functional entry point into the post. By rolling into the paint and making contact with his defender, Lopez was able to quickly turn and seal to establish prime post position against an out-of-position defense. The clever maneuver enabled Lopez to gain the spatial benefits of a quick pick-and-roll with the measured advantage of a traditional post-up.
The second came in defensive coverage, where Lopez tightened up his movements to make noticeable gains. Players as big as Lopez don’t typically need to do all that much to influence shots around the basket consistently; size alone goes a long way, and in Lopez’s case he got greater mileage out of his conservative style. He’s still so slow laterally that he shouldn’t wander much higher than the free-throw line, but Lopez was a more involved defender by avoiding missteps and hesitation. Even without the speed or instincts to ever become a top-flight interior defender, Lopez did well enough to be quite passable.
The rebounding is another story. Lopez catches the most heat for his inability to grab boards on a consistent basis — a perplexing limitation given his pretty strong lower body and great reach. Still, it’s interesting that he’s such an easy target for his rebounding woes, whereas Grizzlies center Marc Gasol — who posted a total rebounding rate 0.3 percent lower than that of Lopez — gets more or less a free pass. It’s all a matter of context, and as long as Lopez has a crew of effective rebounders around him (as he will in Brooklyn this season), most board-induced crises can be averted. — Rob Mahoney
29. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder (F, 23)
2012-13 stats: 31.1 MPG, 13.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 57.3 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.4 PER, 9.4 Win Shares, +2.7 RAPM
Looking for a great way to burn an hour or two during the endless wait for the start of the season? Go to NBA.com’s stats page and cue up a video reel of all 242 shots that Ibaka blocked in 2012-13, when he led the league in that category for the third consecutive season. The tape serves as a great reminder of just how many different ways Ibaka can protect the rim with his elite length, dexterity and timing.
Ibaka hides on the weak block, darting over to snare a turning hook from Tim Duncan. He steps across the paint to blow up a Jeff Teague drive attempt and the block is almost an afterthought. He stops long wing players cold at the rim. He volleyball spikes double-clutch runners. He extends to deflect straight-on jumpers. He goes straight up to stop turnarounds in the post. He makes the correct defensive rotation to help Kendrick Perkins and then surprises everyone by getting both hands up faster than his new mark can get off a shot. This list just goes on, and on, and on. This is a special talent, one that earned him All-Defensive first-team recognition for the second season in a row and placed him third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.
In his fourth season, his first without James Harden in the fold, Ibaka was asked to do more on the other end. Even though Kevin Martin stepped cleanly into the designated third scorer role, Ibaka saw his opportunities increase. He generally made the most of the open looks generated by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Ibaka averaged a career high in both points and field-goal percentage. An improved mid-range jumper, which he shoots well from the elbows and the baseline, made him a key part of Oklahoma City’s second-ranked offense. However, Ibaka, like Martin, crumbled a bit on offense during the playoffs once Westbrook was lost to a knee injury.
Ibaka’s play without Westbrook provided a nice frame of reference for judging his development. A very productive offensive rebounder since his rookie year, Ibaka has long feasted on second-chance opportunities and lob plays in the basket area. Last year, he showed the ability to be consistently effective from virtually everywhere inside the arc, as long as the heavy lifting of shot creation was done for him. Take away one of Ibaka’s table-setters and ask him to initiate more of his own looks, either in the block or facing up against a set defense, and things got more difficult (and his shooting numbers got less impressive). That he struggled a bit in uncharted territory was no surprise, and it shouldn’t drastically alter the general perception of him as one of the league’s best third wheels.
Landing at No. 29 on this list puts Ibaka roughly equidistant between some of the biggest names at his position — Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, Miami’s Chris Bosh and Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge — and an up-and-comer such as Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders, who makes similar waves on defense but hasn’t yet taken the next step on the offensive end. That’s exactly where he should be for now, but there’s really nothing stopping him from moving up to join the group of established All-Stars over the next few seasons. — Ben Golliver
28. Kevin Garnett, Brooklyn Nets (F/C, 37)
2012-13 stats: 29.7 MPG, 14.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 49.6 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.2 PER, 5.6 Win Shares, +4.1 RAPM
Garnett’s career playing-time numbers — more than 48,000 regular-season minutes and 5,000 playoff minutes — loom like a “check engine” light. But, to his immense credit, Garnett is still running great, even after reportedly toying with the idea of retirement in recent years. Yes, the miles are showing: Garnett missed 14 games last season and did not play in nearly one-fifth of Boston’s regular-season games over the last five years, and his raw numbers clearly dropped a shelf once his minutes were cut from the upper 30s to the lower 30s upon his 2007 arrival in Boston.
Still, when looking at his per-minute stats, it’s stunning how consistent (and consistently good) he’s been as he’s progressed through his mid-30s. From 2008-09 through last season, on a per-36 basis, Garnett has averaged between 17.1 and 18.3 points, 8.8 and 10.2 rebounds, 2.8 and 3.2 assists and 1.2 and 1.5 steals and shot between 49.6 and 52.8 percent. His PER has remained well above average, hovering between 19.2 and 21.2, and his RAPM last year ranked 22nd in the NBA. He was the leading rebounder during the 2012 playoffs and he grabbed 17 or more rebounds in three of Boston’s six playoff games against New York last season.
The really impressive number nuggets: Boston’s defensive rating improved a whopping 8.4 points (from 104.6 to 96.2) when Garnett took the court last season, and he was one of just eight players to post a defensive rating less than 100 while playing at least 29 minutes a game (the others: Marc Gasol, David West, Paul George, Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph, Joakim Noah and Kawhi Leonard). In hindsight, somebody should have tossed him a third-place vote for Defensive Player of the Year as a respectful tip of the cap, especially when Boston’s defense finished sixth in efficiency and players such as Trevor Ariza and Kenneth Faried each lucked into a second-place vote. Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who played more than 500 minutes fewer than Garnett and put up significantly worse defensive numbers across the board, somehow appeared on five ballots. What a mess. Anyway.
Boston’s blockbuster trade of Garnett to Brooklyn this summer wasn’t executed based on the belief that the 15-time All-Star is done. Rather, the trade developed because Boston tried, and failed, to surround Garnett with sufficient talent to manufacture a championship window around him. Boxed in by the financial implications of those efforts, the Celtics sent Garnett — and Paul Pierce — to a Nets franchise that possesses the financial resources and veteran star power to take a couple cracks at a title before Garnett’s contract is up in 2015. One (fairly convincing) way to justify Brooklyn’s big-dollar gamble: Dwight Howard is the only player ranked above Garnett and Pierce (No. 32) on this list who changed teams this offseason. — B.G.
27. Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks (C, 30)
2012-13 stats: 32.8 MPG, 10.4 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 63.8 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 18.9 PER, 9.3 Win Shares, +5.3 RAPM
The 2013 playoffs didn’t leave a favorable lasting impression of Chandler, who was tossed aside by the Pacers’ bruising big men and marginalized during the six-game series while struggling through illness and the lingering effects of a neck injury. But when healthy, Chandler ranks as one of the better two-way centers in the game. His influence was all that stood between New York’s below-average defense and a complete collapse. The mounting defensive liabilities in the Knicks’ rotation stretched Chandler thin. He wasn’t able to make up for every botched rotation or save every blow-by, but his general impact was profound enough to compensate for a group of perimeter defenders that was so often a step slow.
Chandler does a fantastic job of covering ground quickly and intelligently. He regularly cuts off drives and challenges shot attempts by taking optimally disruptive angles. Perhaps because of his athleticism, Chandler doesn’t get enough credit for his imposing standstill presence while guarding the post. That area of his game was uncharacteristically weak against Roy Hibbert in the playoffs and immediately signaled an extenuating circumstance. On a typical post sequence, Chandler pushes hard to deny his opponent position, challenging him physically despite being a relatively lean interior defender. He just didn’t have that same fight against the Pacers in the postseason, but there’s every reason to think that he’s capable of returning to form.
Chandler won the 2011-12 Defensive Player of the Year award and has made three consecutive All-Defensive teams, but his offensive impact can be just as dramatic. He’s such an effective finisher on lobs and in the pick-and-roll that opponents have to pay him mind, lest they surrender an easy look to the league leader in true shooting percentage. By virtue of that gravity, Chandler’s teammates tend to benefit from clearer driving lanes and cleaner shot attempts. It takes an exceptional player to boast that kind of clout, but Chandler has earned the benefit by understanding an offense and his role within it. — R.M.
26. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics (G, 27)
2012-13 stats: 37.4 MPG, 13.7 PPG, 11.1 APG, 5.6 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 48.4 FG%, 24.0 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 18.1 PER, 3.2 Win Shares, +0.6 RAPM
Note: Rondo played only 38 games last season due to a knee injury
Besides the sample-size uncertainty that surrounds the younger players on this list, the trickiest variables to weigh in producing the top 100 were recent injuries and radically changed team circumstances. Rondo, who tore his ACL in February and watched Boston dismantle its aging roster this offseason, joins the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and the Cavaliers’ Andrew Bynum among the perplexing group of stars dealing with both major health factors and new roster dynamics. Given his endless series of red flags, Bynum (No. 60) is a pretty unassailable first choice as “most difficult player to rank,” but Rondo’s (relative) youth and the many polarizing holes in his game make him a strong contender for second.
When will Rondo be back? Nobody knows. What will he look like, exactly, once he’s surrounded by Kelly Olynyk and Gerald Wallace instead of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce? Nobody knows.
Even with Hall of Famers surrounding him, Rondo wasn’t able to guide the Celtics to an above-average mark in offensive efficiency during the last three seasons. Defensively, Rondo’s instinctive gambling has put him among the league leaders in steals annually, but he no longer has Garnett to serve as an intelligent, long and fearsome safety net. Rondo’s other major shortcomings — his game-to-game inconsistency, lack of shooting range and limited ability to get to, and convert from, the free-throw line — will also be subject to further exposure and critique whenever the Celtics’ offensive attack stalls out. Some have raised questions about how Brad Stevens, a first-time NBA coach, will handle Rondo’s bristly personality.
And yet, Rondo — a four-time All-Star, 2012 All-NBA third-team selection and 2012 All-Defensive second-team pick — cannot be written off, not when he mounted a furious challenge to the Heat’s supremacy just 16 months ago. For those who have already forgotten: Rondo averaged 20.9 points, 11.3 assists, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, hanging 44 points on Miami in Game 2 and posting a 22/14/10 triple-double in Game 7. Pick your favorite point guard — Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving — and ask yourself whether he, or any of the others, has had a more impressive playoff series over the last five years than Rondo’s.
The sky-scraping height of that high point, his peerless distribution creativity (now that age finally caught up to Steve Nash) and the 2008 championship ring that glistens from his résumé should be more than enough to give a bit of a grace period to Rondo’s reputation as we wait to see how quickly he gets back to 100 percent health and how the Celtics ultimately decide to handle his role in their uncertain future. — B.G.