Top 100 players of 2014: Nos. 20-11
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, Nos. 50-31 here and Nos. 30-21 here. On Friday, we’ll unveil our top 10. 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.
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.
20. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers (G, 21)
2012-13 stats: 34.7 MPG, 22.5 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.7 RPG, 1.5 APG, 45.2 FG%, 39.1 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 21.4 PER, 5.3 Win Shares, +0.9 RAPM
Death, taxes and Kyrie Irving’s likability. The third-year Cavaliers point guard belongs to the world: Traditionalists love him, stat nerds squeal about him, television advertising executives drool over him and highlight mixtape makers struggle to keep up with him. The NBA’s youngest All-Star in 2013 has charisma to spare, but his universal popularity seems to stem from his ability to make both the “right plays” and the plays that no one has seen before. Irving marries high-IQ fundamentals with what I consider to be the best handle in the game (apologies to Chris Paul and others). He can pick apart an elite pick-and-roll defense in one breath, and he can drop a pro-am player to the court with a filthy crossover in the next.
His body of work in the two seasons since he was the No. 1 pick is that of a prodigy: 20.6 points per game, a top-five PER at his position and a PER/Win Shares combination at age 20 that has only been posted by the likes of LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Paul and a small handful of others. (Anthony Davis, No. 1 pick in 2012, is also in that mix, and he’s Irving’s major competition in the “most prodigious prodigy” contest.)
Irving has already proved to be a late-game, pressure-situation maestro, able to milk and manage the clock to his best advantage before creating a clean look seemingly at will. The combination of attributes needed to succeed in these situations — poise, confidence, dribbling ability, shooting touch, feel — is rare, and Irving aces the checklist. The story isn’t as rosy on the defensive end, but the jury is still out a bit, given his youth and Cleveland’s bottom-five team defensive rankings over the last two years. He’s not a lost cause and that’s enough — considering his offensive game — to justify a spot in the top 20.
The tasks in front of him are as clear as day: Stay healthy and make the playoffs. Irving has missed more than one-quarter of Cleveland’s games in the last two seasons because of a variety of injuries — concussion, shoulder, finger, etc. — and the Cavaliers went 9-29 (.237) without him. Still in search of their first playoff appearance of the post-LeBron era, the Cavaliers stocked up this summer — adding Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett — in an attempt to give Irving the support he’s been missing. Now, just imagine how popular he will be once he hits his first postseason game-winner. – Ben Golliver
19. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers (F, 24)
2012-13 stats: 32.5 MPG, 18.0 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 53.8 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 22.4 PER, 10.6 Win Shares, +4.5 RAPM
Griffin is so often discussed as if he’s a simple, solvable player, and yet he finished the 2012-13 season as one of only five players to average 20 points per 36 minutes while shooting 52 percent or better from the floor. The other members of that group (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Brook Lopez) define its illustrious air, setting Griffin apart as a model of scoring efficiency.
Opponents can try to force Griffin to shoot jumpers by giving him space on the perimeter, but he’s clearly capable of working his way into the lane in despite the defense’s intentions. That jumper is coming along, too; it hasn’t yet translated to a significant bump in shooting percentage, but Griffin is noticeably more comfortable in taking those shots and converts them at a roughly league-average rate.
That said, Griffin only takes the bait every so often — a balance that allows him to maintain high efficiency while noodling around with his improving jumper. It’s important to the Clippers’ future that he take those mid-range shots, as the broadening of Griffin’s game stands to be a huge development. But it’s crucial for the Clippers’ present that he continues to storm into the paint for close-range scores, which he does with great frequency and terrifying success. Griffin’s instincts and athleticism make him one of the most feared finishers in the league, and over the past few seasons he’s found an assortment of ways to gain momentum en route to the rim.
The pick-and-roll is the most obvious, but even Griffin’s work in that area is often oversimplified by the citizens of “Lob City.” The ability to dunk is not at all the same as the ability to create dunks. While many players are able to finish open looks around the basket with authority, Griffin’s unique strength lies in his navigation of the paint and the flexibility of his launch point. Griffin does a great job of lingering when an opportunity isn’t immediately available. Big men are often tempted to roll hard to the rim off a screen, even when doing so compromises passing angles and allows the ball handler to be smothered. Griffin has a keen sense of when to roll straight into the paint and when to hang back — in some cases literally standing in place as he waits for Chris Paul to find him. Griffin’s explosive leaping ability gives him that luxury, as he can drive harder out of a standstill than many bigs can with a running start.
Because of that, Griffin is often able to launch himself into the air a full step before many other finishers. In some cases, that translates into a forced shot or a turnover because Griffin is swarmed after leaving his feet. But by and large, Griffin uses that early (and impressively distant) launch point to catch defenses off guard. Even that single beat makes a profound difference when it comes to the timing of interior defense, particularly when defenders are often out of position as a result of containing Paul in the pick-and-roll.
Griffin has a pretty solid post game, too, albeit a wholly unconventional one. His footwork does not suggest a nuanced low-post threat, but Griffin’s vision and resourcefulness afford him chances to score in unpredictable ways. Even without the benefit of great post position, Griffin does well to spin around opponents and attack on the catch — quick moves that are tricky for a single defender to counter. He commits his share of reckless turnovers as a result of attacking the rim so furiously, but at an acceptable cost given how often Griffin is able to wheel around his man into a good look at the rim.
Defending space continues to be a bit of a sore spot, but there’s hope yet for a hyper-athletic 24-year-old. Griffin already does good work defending one-on-one and closing possessions as a defensive rebounder. It’s the fine tuning of defensive movement and help rotations that have eluded him, though every passing season sees Griffin make some marginal gains in that regard. — Rob Mahoney
18. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers (F, 28)
2012-13 stats: 37.7 MPG, 21.1 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.2 BPG, 48.4 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 20.4 PER, 7.2 Win Shares, +3.8 RAPM
Wondering why Aldridge’s name was in trade rumors all summer? Let’s investigate. Of the 17 players ranked ahead of him on this list, 16 have won at least one playoff series, 11 have made it to the Finals and seven are NBA champions. Meanwhile, seven of the 17 players are younger than Aldridge, who turned 28 in July. In fact, there isn’t a player ranked in the top 40 who is as old or older than Aldridge who hasn’t won at least one playoff series. Through seven seasons with the Blazers, Aldridge has just three playoff appearances and six playoff victories. He could be forgiven, then, for being a little antsy, and we haven’t even mentioned the fact that his Rose City tenure has seen three general managers (Kevin Pritchard, Rich Cho and Neil Olshey), two interim GMs (Tod Leiweke and Chad Buchanan) and a season spent without a GM. Let’s stop there before we start tallying up the knee surgeries.
Until the rumors picked up this summer, Aldridge’s approach was to simply go to work and stay out of the spotlight. He’s posted a PER of better than 20 and averaged at least 21 points and eight rebounds for three straight seasons — the last two were rewarded with All-Star selections — and he shifted seamlessly from a No. 2 option behind Brandon Roy to a No. 1 option after the former All-NBA guard was amnestied in 2011. Aldridge possesses a full complement of post moves and 20-foot range on his jumper. Critics wish that he would spend more time on the block instead of at the elbow — an issue that rose to new heights under new coach Terry Stotts last season — and that he would demonstrate more of an alpha dog mentality late in games. Both critiques have merit, but they’re not worth obsessing over to the point where Aldridge’s virtues go unmentioned.
Aldridge is long, athletic and skilled with the ball. He’s become increasingly comfortable exploiting double teams with his recognition and passing. He grades out well defensively — especially compared to some of the other stars at his position — and he’s versatile enough to step out to handle pick-and-roll situations while still being long enough to defend the post in isolation. Aldridge has yearned to play alongside a true center, and he would have made a monster high/low pairing with Greg Oden if the No. 1 pick in 2007 had managed to stay healthy.
Even without Roy, and Oden, and a bench, Aldridge delivered the type of individual results last season that you would expect from an All-Star on a rebuilding team. Among Blazers rotation players, Aldridge posted team highs in net rating, plus-minus, Win Shares, PER and RAPM. The Blazers went 1-7 without him and their offensive and defensive efficiency numbers went into the tank whenever he stepped off the court. Portland’s status as one of a handful of teams competing for one of the last two playoff spots in the West is, it would seem, entirely reliant on Aldridge’s good health.
The question that Aldridge can’t escape: Is he talented enough to be the No. 1 guy on a team that can go deep in the playoffs? It’s the same question that dogged Chris Bosh and Dirk Nowitzki, and those two took drastically different paths to answer it. Bosh subjugated himself to third-wheel status and won two rings for his ego-free move; Nowitzki waited for the perfect combination of veteran talent to surround him and saw his patience rewarded with a title of his own. Either scenario seems like it could work for Aldridge, but the Blazers aren’t blessed with the type of talent to make the Dirk route a plausible option in the short-term. That fact has only fueled the rumor mill.
Aldridge’s contract is up in 2015, meaning the trade talks should really kick into gear next summer, assuming Portland isn’t able to shock the world by making noise in the 2014 playoffs. For as consistent as Aldridge has been through so many different types of adversity, it would be nice to see him shake the “best player in his prime to have won absolutely nothing” label. If that requires a change of scenery, so be it. – B.G.
17. Chris Bosh, Miami Heat (F/C, 29)
2012-13 stats: 33.2 MPG, 16.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.4 BPG, 53.5 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 20.0 PER, 9.0 Win Shares, +1.9 RAPM
In the introductory text above, we noted that our goal in formulating these rankings was to minimize the role of team context. That approach really factors into the assessment of Bosh, whose per-game raw stats do not compare favorably to those of the other stars at his position because of his clear-cut No. 3 role in Miami. Some readers might be feeling the urge at this point to scream, “He didn’t even average seven rebounds!” Go ahead and take a moment to get that out of your system. Good? Good. Please realize that Bosh, now firmly in his prime, could swap jobs with some 20 power forwards tomorrow and his rebounding average would jolt back up to nine or 10, where it was during his mid-20s in Toronto. What would really be the point of doing that?
What we’ve seen in Miami is a player with Hall of Fame talent allow himself to be molded to fit around two other, slightly better (relative to all other professional basketball players) future Hall of Famers. During his three seasons in South Beach, Bosh has produced remarkably consistent per-36 minutes stats while finding ways to make marginal improvements to his game. In 2012-13, he blocked a few more shots and pushed his shooting percentage to a career-high 53.5. He also continued to hone his perfect niche: the mid-range jumper that helps space the floor for LeBron James. Bosh shot better than 53 percent from every location around the free-throw circle. That’s not quite a layup, but it’s close, and it can only be described as being a devastating weapon for an offense. What does it mean for a team to have a player capable of averaging 16.6 points on just 12.3 shots? The only two players to score more points on fewer shots last season were Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. That type of company for your No. 3 guy? Again, devastating.
When he joined the Heat in 2010, Bosh traded the certainty of short-term recognition as a star for a shot at the long-term glory that comes with winning big. He has two rings and three Finals appearances to show for that exchange thus far, but it must be noted that his stats are still mighty impressive, even if they require a little bit of extra digging. One example: Only 14 players — including James and Dwyane Wade — can match Bosh’s PER/Win Shares combination from last season. Another example: The James/Wade/Bosh lineup combination produced an offensive rating of 112.3 and a defensive rating of 98.8 for a mind-blowing net rating of +13.5. Turns out that, despite heavy nitpicking on both ends, Bosh is a key piece of an elite offense and an elite defense. Miami probably didn’t win those 27 straight games by accident.
If you want to call Bosh “overrated,” a better term would be “purposefully underutilized.” If you want to call him “soft,” a better term would be “strategically deployed.” If you want to write off his success as a product of James’ greatness, Bosh and the Heat have compiled three years’ worth of borderline-obscene lineup data that reinforces his significant role in Miami’s success. If you want to call him “overpaid” at $19.1 million this season, think long and hard about what his numbers would look like as a featured guy somewhere else. Bosh is quirky, and he’s sometimes overmatched as a center, and he’s an easy target. He’s also really, really good at basketball. – B.G.
16. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks (F, 35)
2012-13 stats: 31.3 MPG, 17.3 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 47.1 FG%, 41.4 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.8 PER, 5.0 Win Shares, +3.8 RAPM
In coming off his worst statistical season since 2000, Nowitzki is sure to have his doubters — particularly among those who didn’t keep a close eye on his year-long progress. But most every micro-level indicator available suggests that this is still the same old doggedly efficient Dirk.
His overall numbers don’t reflect that, having been shaded by Nowitzki’s slow return from the first knee surgery of his career. But by February the longtime Maverick was more or less in full form, averaging 21.1 points (on 50-40-90 shooting percentages), 8.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and just 1.6 turnovers per 36 minutes after the All-Star break. Those marks all compare pretty favorably with Nowitzki’s career numbers, an amazing feat, given the quality of his teammates.
Nowitzki had no dependable pick-and-roll partner last season; he relied on Darren Collison (a mediocre shooter reluctant to attack the basket), O.J. Mayo (who doesn’t have a great feel for on-the-move playmaking) and Mike James (who is Mike James) to set the table. Entry to Nowitzki in the post also became an oddly difficult exercise, with Collison in particular flunking his attempts. Nowitzki largely established strong enough position (or sold the contact from the defender) to avoid a turnover, but poor passes and hesitation from the guards compromised the German forward’s scoring chances. Even those shackles couldn’t bind Nowitzki’s low-block efficiency (he converted 50 percent of his post-up attempts, according to Synergy Sports), but creating shots in that manner took more work and precision than they rightly should have.
Those factors should be largely corrected this season, and Nowitzki is set to be healthier. With that return to normalcy comes the resumed demonstration of Nowitzki’s mastery of his current role. He’s a terrific first-option scorer, capable of anchoring a flexible, sophisticated offense. Nowitzki understands when to pass and doesn’t hesitate to make the right play — both of which are of particular importance when funneling so much offense through a single player. It’s not a balance that can be broadly defined (the distinction of when to pass and when to shoot is too deeply contextual for that), but Nowitzki has grown to understand how to counter traps and double teams coming from all angles, all while maintaining an offensive game that’s nearly impossible to address in one-on-one coverage.
That forces defenses to make difficult compromises every trip down the floor. If a single defender is put at Nowitzki’s mercy, he can pick him apart and give Dallas a significant advantage. If a more comprehensive help scheme is employed, then the floodgates open on a three-point barrage, as Nowitzki does a good job of both identifying open shooters for direct assists and setting in motion the ball movement that otherwise leads to a score. He’s an outstanding perimeter shooter and a visionary among shot fake artists, using simple deception to open up driving lanes and opportunities to draw fouls. But not biting on Nowitzki’s shot fakes leaves open the possibility of his taking the attempt — a less-than-preferable option, given that Dirk converted 48.1 percent of his mid-range attempts last season, tops among players who attempted as many (437) shots from that area of the floor.
The concerns about his defense, though, are perfectly valid, considering that lateral movement will likely be the first part of his game to significantly decline with age. Nowitzki was merely a serviceable defender at his peak, and if he loses even a fraction of a step because of age or injury, he might soon become a more uncomfortable defensive element. Otherwise, he’s survivable — not so effective as to be helpful on a consistent basis, but good enough to play a role on a good defensive team. The same could essentially be said of his rebounding. While Nowitzki has never nabbed boards in volume, it’s conceivable that his rebounding numbers could take a hit if his mobility is ever compromised. That shouldn’t be much of a factor this season, but one can’t entirely rule out the possibility of a 35-year-old with Nowitzki’s mileage finally hitting a physical wall. — R.M.
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.
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