Top 100 players of 2014: Nos. 30-21
25. Paul George, Indiana Pacers (F, 23)
2012-13 stats: 37.6 MPG, 17.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.8 SPG, 41.9 FG%, 36.2 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 16.8 PER, 9.0 Win Shares, +2.9 RAPM
George has been tabbed as a burgeoning star, but he hasn’t reached that level in any traditional sense yet. As a scorer, he’s still merely solid; his average of 16.7 points per 36 minutes last season was less than that of players such as DeMar DeRozan, Gerald Henderson and Corey Brewer. As a shot creator, he’s still incredibly sloppy; George’s shooting inefficiency matched that of Josh Smith and Jeremy Lin in terms of effective field-goal percentage, while iffy dribbling provided a consistent drain on his production. He turned the ball over on nearly a quarter of the pick-and-rolls he ran last season, according to Synergy Sports, made just 35.9 percent of his shots as an isolated scorer and failed to elevate the Pacers’ offense beyond being average at best.
This isn’t to say that George is in any way a bad player or to imply that he won’t soon be great. But the comparisons to ball-dominant stars are neither fair nor sensible, as George does so much of his finest work in other phases of the game.
That work often begins on the defensive end, where George is uniquely suited to bother the hell out of the NBA’s best wing scorers. He can be a bit vulnerable to bigger, stronger forwards who feel comfortable working from the post (i.e., LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony), but even they have to loft attempts over George’s elastic arms and deal with him contesting every step and dribble. He’s so quick that he doesn’t need to give any opponent a buffer, leading to smothering, dialed-in defense from the three-point line in.
George augments his defensive talents with a knack for rebounding. Only a handful of wing players grabbed a greater percentage of available boards last season. That skill, coupled with a career-high 4.1 assists per game, is where I suspect the claims of traditional stardom begin to materialize. George does appear to do it all when gauged on a very basic statistical level, and he passes the eye test as a hyper-athletic wing with obvious talent. But it doesn’t take much to see that he’s still far more suited for a supporting role right now, having only managed to surpass 40 percent shooting from the field because of off-ball action (cuts, offensive boards, hand-offs) and transition opportunities. His all-around game makes him a star all the same, but he’s a world (or a few seasons of development) removed from the style of other wing creators. — R.M.
24. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets (G, 29)
2012-13 stats: 36.4 MPG, 18.9 PPG, 7.7 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 44.0 FG%, 37.8 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 20.3 PER, 10.9 Win Shares, +2.3 RAPM
Williams is a laundry list of open questions. Is he the point guard who averaged 16.7 points and shot 41.3 percent from the field before the All-Star break, missing out on being selected to the game for the first time since 2009? Is he the point guard who got injections into his bothersome ankles during the break and went on to average 22.9 points and shoot 48.1 percent down the stretch? Was he clearly the best player on a 49-win Nets team, the end of coach Avery Johnson, both of those things, or neither of those things? Did he answer some questions by getting back to the playoffs for the first time since the Jazz traded him or did he raise more by losing a Game 7 on his home court to a team without two key players? Did he do absolutely everything that Brooklyn could have asked for after signing him to a five-year, $98.8 million extension? Is the “edginess” to his personality an actual concern or was it overblown? That’s really just a sampling. The questions raised by his mid-career turbulence could go on all day.
From all of that clutter, it seems reasonable to conclude that Williams’ 2012-13 season improved significantly as it went along, but not enough to warrant uninhibited praise. He somewhat resembles the 20-and-10 guy from years past — the big, physical point guard who wore down opponents and ran a steady ship — but something’s been missing.
That something could be good health (he dealt with a wrist issue in addition to the ankle problems). That something could be A+ conditioning. That something could have been the quality of his teammates (he arrived in New Jersey in 2011 with a rough collection of “talent” around him and it’s been a bit of a revolving door since). That something could be a fully functional relationship with his coach (the end of the Johnson era got very ugly and interim coach P.J. Carlesimo was dumped immediately after the playoffs). That something could merely be a lack of continuity with his key teammates, as Nets GM Billy King has worked rapidly (and owner Mikhail Prokhorov has spent extravagantly) to surround Williams with contender-level skill at every position.
If Williams’ ranking seems a bit low, and it might considering his lofty reputation in past years, remember that he hasn’t won a playoff series since 2010 and that his PER has slipped slightly, landing outside the top-five point guards after spending 2009, 2010 and 2011 ranked either third or fourth at his position. It’s not that he’s tumbled so much as a few other highly qualified candidates have slipped past him, possibly on a temporary basis. For context, Williams is No. 7 among point guards on this list, but it’s a very fluid group: Ranked above him are a recent MVP, three players who finished in the top nine of the 2013 MVP voting, multiple perennial All-NBA selections, four 2013 All-Stars and a number of guys coming off big-time performances in last season’s playoffs. The competition here is just vicious, and Williams does suffer on the “What have you done for me lately?” front.
The good news for Williams is that Prokhorov has spared no expense in building a deep, tested roster that is ready to make a postseason run. Jason Kidd, Brooklyn’s new coach, has been where Williams wants to go, and the two should see eye-to-eye because of it. The Nets have added a back-line defensive stopper (Garnett) to shore up their interior and another perimeter scoring threat (Paul Pierce) to keep defenses honest. Everything is in place for a reputation-righting season for Williams. It’s up to him now. — B.G.
23. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers (C, 26)
2012-13 stats: 28.7 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 1.4 APG, 44.8 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 17.3 PER, 6.1 Win Shares, +4.6 RAPM
Indiana’s playoff run last season was essentially a full-time campaign to raise awareness of Hibbert’s defense. His exploits were already fairly well established among those in the know; the Pacers led the NBA in points allowed per possession, in part because of elite marks in both opponent attempts and opponent shooting percentage in the restricted area. Protecting the basket at the level Hibbert does creates a baseline for outstanding team coverage, and while that was never more clear than in Indiana’s warding off Miami’s offense from getting to the rim during the Eastern Conference finals, it’s not as if the Pacers’ success in that regard were some recent development.
What is relatively new, however, is Hibbert’s ability to play big minutes without a decline in his performance. In previous seasons, consistent work on both ends of the floor had often left Hibbert drained, contributing to his playing fewer than 30 minutes per game to avoid burnout. That trend continued through the 2012-13 regular season, but in the playoffs Hibbert averaged 36.5 minutes without incident. That change helped the Pacers sustain their superb defense against especially threatening scorers, and cemented Hibbert’s standing as a high-usage player on both ends of the floor.
But Hibbert’s offensive game doesn’t quite measure up to his All-NBA defense, despite evident skill. Today’s post scorers have to be overwhelmingly efficient to justify a huge investment of possessions down low, and Hibbert doesn’t quite meet that threshold. His size is a huge advantage that enables him to generate easy points. But he scores on only 42.4 percent of his shot attempts in the post (a number that doesn’t stack up well with the NBA’s better post-up big men), according to Synergy Sports, and earns a foul on just 6.2 percent of his post-up possessions. Hibbert is simply too big to get the benefit of the doubt on many potential foul calls and too good a free-throw shooter (72.9 percent for his five-year career) for opponents to wrap up intentionally. That means fewer trips to the line than one might think, leaving his offensive game to hinge on underwhelming shooting numbers.
Hibbert is still clearly valuable, particularly to a team as well-balanced as the Pacers. But he’s not an offensive superstar, no matter his throwback appeal as an archetypal, low-post center. — R.M.
22. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks (C, 27)
2012-13 stats: 37.2 MPG, 17.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 54.3 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.8 PER, 8.8 Win Shares, +1.7 RAPM
Versatility, thy name is Al Horford. The Hawks’ big man may well be the league’s least intrusive star — so astonishingly well-rounded that he blends seamlessly into any roster or system. He’s either a power forward or a center, a facilitator or scorer, a post defender or a roving helper. Horford has already worn quite a few hats in his six seasons with the Hawks, but with Josh Smith’s departure and Atlanta’s reshaped roster, he’s surely due to don a few more. That adjustment is no burden for a player of such varied skills. Horford simply shifts from one strength to another, ever in service of the greater good.
Horford looks to complement by default. His offensive point of reference lies at the elbow, where he’s able to orchestrate plays and see the entire floor. He’s a knockdown shooter from that range — particularly on the left side, where he converted 52.8 percent from the high wing/elbow area last season, according to Vorped — but also comfortable triggering a particular cutter or attacking the basket himself.
He is no less potent if led to operate from another area of the court. That same shooting ability makes him a flexible pick-and-roll option, fit to pop out into an open jumper or roll toward the rim without any cost to his trademark efficiency. Plus, Horford manages to retain his feel for playmaking even after catching the ball on the move; he’s one of the best in the league at rerouting pick-and-roll sequences on the fly, for which Atlanta’s shooters — the most common beneficiaries of Horford’s kick-outs — owe him a debt of gratitude. A sophisticated post game also accounts for nearly a quarter of Horford’s possession usage, per Synergy Sports, and provides a more static setup when the Hawks don’t have time for a full survey of the floor. Horford finds ways to accomplish plenty even when catching the ball late in the clock.
Defensively, Horford is a bit less exceptional than a few of the big men already covered on this list, but his unfailing reliability makes him ideal for help coverage. He has no problem rectifying his teammates’ errors and limitations from the back line, though, frankly, Horford was — at times — Atlanta’s top perimeter defender as well. That kind of assignment would never happen by design, but Horford handled switches and hedges about as well as any big man could, thanks to his agility and feel for the game. — R.M.
21. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls (C, 28)
2012-13 stats: 36.8 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.1 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 48.1 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 18.1 PER, 7.3 Win Shares, +4.6 RAPM
There’s more than a little “Hemingway protagonist” to Noah, who responded to Derrick Rose’s impossible-to-overcome injury absence last season by pushing himself, his body and his game to every possible limit. Chicago’s Game 7 victory against Brooklyn in the first round — on the road sans Rose and Luol Deng — was his masterpiece: 24 points (on 12-for-17 shooting), 14 rebounds and six blocks in 40 minutes. “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life,” he said afterward. That performance summed up everything that makes Noah great: his unwavering confidence (he guaranteed a victory), nonstop, productive energy, reliable and thorough defensive impact and an insatiable will to win.
The standard (double-double every night) and advanced statistics (top-15 in the NBA In RAPM) agree: Noah was a very valuable contributor last season, even if his efficiency dipped slightly under the strain of more minutes that accompanied center Omer Asik’s free-agent departure. Noah was selected to his first All-Star Game and the All-Defensive first team. He finished fourth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, and he just might have won the award if plantar fasciitis hadn’t limited him down the stretch. Bum wheel or not, Noah posted career highs across the board and anchored a top-five defense for the third straight season. Chicago’s defensive efficiency was a full five points better (98.4 to 103.4) when its long, mobile center was on the court.
The lasting image of Noah’s season turned out to be that crazy Miami fan flipping him off as he left the court during the conference semifinals, yet another chapter in a fierce Heat/Bulls rivalry that once prompted him to dub Miami “Hollywood as hell.” Looking at the image now, one can’t help but guess that Noah was telling himself: “Just wait until Derrick is back.” Regardless of how the futures of Deng and Carlos Boozer play out, the combination of Noah and Rose, plus coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive genius, should make the Bulls a top contender in the East for years to come. Really, outside of LeBron James/Whoever, Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard/James Harden and maybe Chris Paul/Blake Griffin, how many duos offer greater promise over the next half-decade than Rose/Noah? — B.G.
|Top 100 NBA Players: Nos. 100-21|