Top 100 players of 2014: Nos. 20-11
15. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (G, 25)
2012-13 stats: 38.2 MPG, 22.9 PPG, 6.9 APG, 4 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 45.1 FG%, 45.3 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 21.3 PER, 11.2 Win Shares, +4.2 RAPM
Curry’s play during Golden State’s magical run through the 2013 playoffs left many stunned, but his most staggering work was done during the regular season. Never before has an NBA player made as many three-pointers as Curry (a league-leading 272) while maintaining his level of accuracy (45.3 percent). Hasn’t happened. The closest contender is 2007-08 Peja Stojakovic, who hit 231 threes while shooting 44.1 percent. There really aren’t even that many players in the same ballpark: Fewer than 20 guys have hit 200 threes while shooting better than 40 percent.
That extraterrestrial marksmanship fueled Curry’s superlative advanced stats: Only five players matches his PER/Win Shares combination, and all five — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and James Harden — rank above him on this list. Unless calamity or injuries strike, Curry’s four-year, $44 million rookie extension will stand as one of the NBA’s best contracts for its entirety. And, now that he has a playoff series victory under his belt, Curry should be in line for All-Star selections and All-NBA consideration as he heads toward his prime years.
The beautiful paradox with Curry is that he is simultaneously one of the best shooters the league has ever seen while being way more than “just a shooter.” He’s a force in the pick-and-roll because he can step back and shoot, he can create off the dribble and he can make defenses pay for overcommitting with his passing. When used off the ball, his presence running through screens can create a distracting paranoia for defenses. His work ethic, love for the game, leadership skills and other intangibles are all off the charts. He has all the necessary ingredients to enjoy “franchise player” status for the better part of the next decade.
Being the league’s feel-good story of the season does mean there will be additional scrutiny in 2013-14. Can Curry the individual force carry a Golden State team that ranked No. 10 in offensive efficiency to even higher levels? Can Golden State find a way to play stingier team defense when Curry is involved (last year, Golden State’s defensive rating was 4.8 points worse when Curry was on the court)? Is Curry destined to be thought of as a James Harden/Carmelo Anthony type — an elite one-way threat — given the offensive burden he shoulders? Or can he manage to take a meaningful step forward on the defensive end? Can he keep the momentum going as the Warriors juggle the addition of Andre Iguodala, the return of David Lee and the loss of Jarrett Jack?
The answers to those questions will help determine the legitimacy of Golden State’s contention hopes. They will also help set Curry’s ceiling in future versions of this list, a ceiling that could be very high (top 10 next year?) indeed. – B.G.
14. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies (C, 28)
2012-13 stats: 35 MPG, 14.1 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.7 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 49.4 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.5 PER, 11.5 Win Shares, +6 RAPM
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year draws on a daunting level of spatial intelligence. That, even more than size, is Gasol’s greatest gift. He understands how much room certain sequences require in order to fully develop, and thus takes it upon himself as a defender to intrude on that necessary space. Folded into that understanding are countless micro-calculations of passing angles and driving possibilities, which Gasol seems to comprehend in a moment’s notice and adjust for in real time. He’s constantly shuffling his feet, moving a few inches this way or that, if only for the sake of eliminating a single scoring threat at a time. He can’t realistically control for them all, but in total this approach helps Gasol establish a vast defensive impact, so much so that most every piece of empirical evidence available supports his claim as one of the best defenders in the league.
The Spanish big man is the fundamental reason why Memphis ranked second in defensive efficiency last season. Though he had help from a stout system and talented teammates, it was Gasol’s ability to both thwart individual threats and play the entire floor that underlined the Grizzlies’ grit and grind. His defensive application is almost universal; Gasol’s uncanny ability to control space makes him of particular use in the pick-and-roll, but he’s also practically immovable in the post and unexpectedly nimble in guarding on the perimeter. He’s a 7-1 behemoth who plays totally on balance and stands as an adaptive impediment to all that opponents try to accomplish.
That kind of defensive ability makes Gasol an incredible asset in a team context, fit to complement all kinds of useful players. Grizzlies guards Tony Allen and Mike Conley are able to be especially aggressive in their perimeter coverage because of Gasol’s shading on every play. More limited defenders — like power forward Zach Randolph — can be used without much consequence, as Gasol props up his teammates with timely rotations. He allows for the employ of different kinds of role players (scoring specialists, spot shooters, etc.) because of all that he accounts for as a defender. With the rarity of his skills and the accommodation of his game, Gasol is the type of player you build around.
That holds true on the offensive end as well, as Gasol is a talented all-around player with an innate sense of self-control. If anything, one could argue that Gasol’s mentality is a bit too disciplined. He’s certainly capable of scoring more but reins in his game for the sake of facilitation. Unselfishness, though, is a good problem to have. Though Gasol can likely never be taught the hyper-assertive ways of the league’s most explosive scorers, there’s no harm in defaulting to controlled basketball while becoming increasingly bold as a shot creator. He’ll likely adopt an even bigger role this season to offset the slow slippage in Randolph’s game and the complete absence of small forward Rudy Gay, who was traded in the middle of last season.
Gasol is more than up to the task. Though Gasol doesn’t use possessions at a high level, he’s involved in most aspects of Memphis’ offense through his work in the high and low posts. He does fantastic work at the elbow, in particular, where he combines a knack for playmaking with a consistent mid-range jumper. No big man is better suited to making those reads. Not only does Gasol set up cutters, shooters and other post players with ease, but he also finds angles and openings that few centers can. The same passing instincts allow him to branch out his own work in the low post, making that one-on-one enterprise an element of a more flexible team offense.
If Gasol were a better rebounder or more efficient scorer, he would likely crack the top 10. As it stands, though, this ranking is just right — justified in the bottom-line influence of a terrific all-around player and befitting a worthy franchise cornerstone. — R.M.
13. Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves (F, 24)
2012-13 stats: 34.3 MPG, 18.3 PPG, 14.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 35.2 FG%, 21.7 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 17.9 PER, 1.1 Win Shares, +5.3 RAPM
Note: Love played only 18 games because of hand injuries
While I’m not terribly concerned about the long-term implications of Love’s once-broken hand or nagging knee, this ranking does reflect the slightest bit of uncertainty. Love has been sidelined by enough random ailments over the last two seasons to warrant that — not out of fear of re-injury, per se, but simply as a hedge against the instability that comes in playing only half of the past two seasons.
When healthy, though, Love is one of the league’s best rebounders and an amazingly varied scorer. He had started to put together some of the high-level offensive skills that would bolster his status as a first-option player before injuries derailed his progress, and I’m very interested to see if he’s capable of picking up where he left off. Shot creation remains a primary concern. Love is better at manufacturing offense than he’s given credit, but he doesn’t do so at the level of the league’s most dynamic players — many of whom outrank him on this list. If he can reach that level consistently, he could be bound for the top 10 soon. Even if not, he’s still worthy of this spot and capable of improvement, provided he continues to pick up the finer points of defensive coverage.
Love is similar to Blake Griffin in that he generally does a fine job in one-on-one defensive situations but hasn’t yet established a firm grasp of rotational principles. I can’t blame him, given the upheaval in Minnesota during Love’s first few seasons there. Only recently has he been afforded the measure of consistency needed to pick up defensive fundamentals at an NBA level. Love has already defended well enough to avoid being a liability, so there’s reason to believe that he’s capable of doing more in due time.
Even without much defensive growth, though, Love is unusual and productive enough to register a considerable impact. Love is one of the few big men who can mix it up inside while also stretching the floor. His dual effectiveness as both interior scorer and three-point threat (he hit 39.1 percent of his threes from 2010-2012) puts him in an interesting space, as he can take on a variety of roles in either designed plays or spontaneous offense.
He’s always a threat. When setting a screen, Love is physical and swift, transitioning quickly into a dive to the rim or positioning himself for a jumper. When working in the post, he manages to score on nearly half (47.1 percent) of his possessions, according to Synergy Sports, leaning primarily on righty hooks and turnaround jumpers. Love’s shooting ability also makes him a spot-up threat both inside the arc and out, forcing defenders to respect his movement without the ball. And as soon as a shot goes up anywhere on the floor, Love charges into action, perfectly reading the trajectory of the attempt and boxing out effectively. — R.M.
12. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls (G, 24)
2011-12 stats: 35.3 MPG, 21.8 PPG, 7.9 APG, 3.4 RPG, 43.5 FG%, 31.2 3FG%
2011-12 advanced stats: 23.0 PER, 6.0 Win Shares, +4.3 RAPM
Note: Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season with a knee injury
Even Rose’s staunchest supporters should understand — without explanation — why the point guard slipped out of the top 10 on this year’s list. He hasn’t played an NBA game in 16 months. He’s coming off of a serious knee injury. The other superstars at his position — Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook — all had banner years. Paul led the Clippers to their best season in franchise history; Parker led the Spurs to within 5.2 seconds of a title; and Westbrook enjoyed a career year, helping lead a 60-win Thunder team whose 9.21 average margin of victory was the best since the 2007-08 Celtics.
So where exactly was Rose when we last saw him? In the lockout-shorted 2011-12 season, Rose played just 39 games because of injury, making the All-Star team but missing out on All-NBA honors. The 2011 MVP finished 10th in the 2012 MVP race, drawing just one third-place vote, but his PER ranked No. 2 at his position, behind Paul. His middling outside shooting numbers held him back a bit, but his explosiveness, quickness and power off the dribble, along with his overall playmaking instincts, were enough to keep him in the discussion among the NBA’s very best talents. More importantly, perhaps, the Bulls were 32-9 (.821) when he played in 2011-12. That’s a 67-win pace in a normal 82-game season. Combining the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, Chicago has gone 94-28 (.770) when Rose has suited up. The 2011 Eastern Conference finals aside, all Rose does is win, win, win, no matter what, what, what.
It’s worth noting that Rose is unique among the names in this 11-to-20 group because he’s established enough to have performed at a top-five overall level (only Dirk Nowitzki fits that bill) while still being young enough to do it again (sorry, Dirk). Will Rose be able to reclaim that lofty standing in his first year back on the court? Will his knee injury — a fairly common one by NBA standards — lower his individual ceiling enough to allow other young point guards (Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving) a window to move past him? Will the injury lead to stylistic changes in his game that reshape his reputation? It’s burning questions like these that prompted the NBA to schedule Bulls-Heat on opening night. Who can wait any longer to start finding out the answers? – B.G.
11. James Harden, Houston Rockets (G, 24)
2012-13 stats: 38.3 MPG, 25.9 PPG, 5.8 APG, 4.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 43.8 FG%, 36.8 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 23.0 PER, 12.8 Win Shares, +5.1 RAPM
In the past two seasons, Harden has demonstrated that he can either be one of the best complementary players in the world or a possession-dominant, shot-creating juggernaut all his own. He acted as the definitive engine for the sixth-best offense in the NBA last season, but within Harden’s game are shades of compromise — the invaluable ability to let go of controlling the offense for the sake of coexistence with another star. It’s for that reason that the pairing of Harden and Dwight Howard in Houston seems so promising. Playing off Howard should be relatively simple compared to finding wiggle room between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and leaves Harden free to be both offensive creator and necessary support.
The result should be a masterful blend of volume and efficiency, brought by a player who already ranked in the top 10 in usage rate and the top 15 in true shooting percentage. The only other players to achieve that same statistical balance last season were Durant and LeBron James, both of whom set the standard for scoring equilibrium. Harden isn’t far behind, though, which is particularly impressive given how successful he was in redeeming points out of unfavorable situations last season. Houston’s offense was so simple that a halted pick-and-roll sequence would often come without contingencies, leaving Harden to create something off the dribble with the shot clock on his back. He managed by drawing fouls on a ridiculous 16 percent of his isolation possessions, according to Synergy Sports, a standout mark even among elite scorers.
That ability to drive into traffic and conjure foul calls tends to irritate some, but I love the theater. Every Harden possession is a negotiation of space and contact with his defender, and it’s fascinating to watch the gamesmanship between both parties as an official tries to make sense of it all. Harden is so explosive offensively that he now draws the league’s finest perimeter stoppers — from Andre Iguodala to Paul George to Tony Allen — on a regular basis, and yet he manages to turn their length and strength against them by taking unique angles and fully extending to create contact. It was through those means that Harden led the league in free throw attempts per game (10.2) last season, the anchor of his scoring efficiency.
It also resulted in an incredible number of Harden’s drives ending with the ball being flung wildly out of bounds, credited either as an airball or unprompted turnover. Playing for contact often comes at a price, and in Harden’s case the toll manifests as a few wasted possessions a night when he expects a whistle and hears none.
The Rockets can live with that, though, because otherwise Harden manages to create the best possible shots on a frequent basis. His driving style yields free-throw attempts and shots directly around the basket, both of which are more or less ideal results of a given possession. In addition, Harden led the league last season in three-pointers created (both by his own makes and assists leading to made threes), which means that his offensive creation checks all boxes in terms of fundamental efficiency. Few can produce like Harden does at such quantity, and it’s on that basis that he’s knocking on the door of the top 10 at just 24 years old. That said: If he had any interest in playing committed defense, he’d already be on the other side of that threshold. – R.M.
|Top 100 NBA Players: Nos. 100-11|