Top 100 players of 2014: Nos. 10-1
5. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder (G, 24)
2012-13 stats: 34.9 MPG, 23.2 PPG, 7.4 APG, 5.2 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 43.8 FG%, 32.3 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 23.9 PER, 11.6 Win Shares, +5.3 RAPM
Russell Westbrook is a man of violence. His style is punishing by its very nature, as he hurtles himself into the teeth of opposing defenses and aims clearly to crush all that stand in his path. While other superstars play with a charismatic bounce in their step, Westbrook’s sensibility hinges on a certain haine de vivre — a competitive malevolence that brings him to stare down the best in the league and, by opposing, end them.
He’s routinely slammed for his attitude, his recklessness, and his impurity as a point guard. Westbrook doesn’t much fit the conventional mold of what a ball handler should be, and in that is seen to take away opportunities and shot from Kevin Durant. Yet their balance is essential to the Thunder’s success; Westbrook might be aggressively unpredictable, but he’s become a creative, productive force all his own.
Much of that stems from the fact that Westbrook is almost impossible to stay in front of. He works from a foundation of exhilarating athleticism, the class of which allows him to buzz past the first line and command the attention of the entire opposing defense. Even then, he can’t often be stopped; Westbrook averaged more field goal attempts in the restricted area (6.9) than any other guard in the NBA last season, and managed to leverage his drives to create contact and earn free throws with incredible frequency. All of this tends to make his rushes of pull-up jumpers that much more befuddling. Westbrook has the skill and body control to hit that shot somewhat consistently, but his explosive drives grant him the potential to to do better. He’s a bit wiser, now, about picking his spots with those jumpers, just as he’s lowered his turnover rate to career-best levels through more precise passing. But Westbrook certainly isn’t without his vices, and those aspects of his game can occasionally be overwhelming.
Yet the Thunder happily live with those wilder patches for the sake of employing a shot-creating dynamo. In addition to manufacturing his own offense at an elite level, Westbrook is also the key to unlocking Oklahoma City’s limited bigs as offensive threats. Never was that more evident than in the 2013 playoffs, where Westbrook’s brutally timed meniscus tear forced Serge Ibaka, in particular, to go without. Predictably, Ibaka’s scoring efficiency suffered; the once-viable scorer converted just 37.7 percent of his field goals in the Thunder’s second-round series against the Grizzlies, as he sorely missed the easy opportunities that Westbrook’s drives yield. During the regular season, that factor alone made all the difference for Ibaka, who converted a terrific 58.8 percent of his field goals when sharing the court with Westbrook, and a dim 40.3 percent* when operating otherwise (though to be fair, Ibaka only played 194 minutes without Westbrook during the regular season).
Ultimately, Westbrook was responsible for setting up nearly 40 percent of the baskets scored by Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins — two players who otherwise have a terribly rough go of getting the ball in the hoop. That may well be basketball creation in its purest form, manifest in the game of a somewhat spotty playmaker.
Westbrook may not ever have the full control that empowers the two point guards that outrank him here, but to what extent that really matters is negotiable. At present, he’s already in a dead-tie with Parker at the least — nudged down ever so slightly in light of his meniscus tear (which isn’t expected to hold him back, but stranger things have happened) and Parker’s incredibly successful postseason. Otherwise, Westbrook’s volcanic game stacks up with the finest at his position. He compensates for his weaknesses (iffy shooting percentages, shaky playmaking judgment, lack of defensive discipline) by regularly accomplishing the extraordinary, and in that offers a unique, catalytic influence. — R.M.
4. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs (G, 31)
2012-13 stats: 32.9 MPG, 20.3 PPG, 7.6 APG, 3 RPG, 52.2 FG%, 35.3 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 23 PER, 9.3 Win Shares, +3.3 RAPM
Coming to a consensus ranking on Parker was tricky for a couple of reasons. First, should he be above Duncan? Who is more indispensable to the Spurs? Would a Duncan-less team go further in the postseason than a Parker-less team? Can you you even imagine a Spurs team without either of them after this past season/postseason? Second, where does Parker fall in the ultra-competitive point guard hierarchy? How do you really define “better” between Parker, Westbrook and Chris Paul (and Derrick Rose when he’s healthy)? Parker is the oldest and by far the most accomplished from a team perspective (three rings, one Finals MVP), but he’s not the most complete, or the most athletic, or the most-decorated from an individual standpoint.
Unintentionally, Parker’s relative ranking here mirrors the results of the 2013 MVP voting. Parker finished sixth on that ballot, one spot ahead of Duncan, and second to Paul among point guards. This ranking might not please everyone but it does seem fair. Parker was the leading scorer and the leading assist man on an offense that has ranked No. 7 in 2013, No. 2 during the 2013 playoffs, No. 1 in 2012 and No. 2 during the 2012 playoffs. His quickness, poise, decision-making, natural distribution instincts, and his ability to get to the hoop seemingly at will combine to make him the engine behind San Antonio’s spectacular attack. During the Spurs’ 2013 run to the Finals, Parker beat the Warriors with his scoring (32 points in a key Game 3 win on the road), he beat the Grizzlies with both his passing (18 assists in a Game 2 win) and his scoring (37 points in a closeout Game 4 on the road), and he beat the Heat with pure ingenuity (his magical Game 1 winner). Parker’s shaky health during the Finals is one of the many laments that San Antonio fans were left with following the soul-crushing series defeat. If Paker delivers an “A” night in either Game 6 or Game 7, the Spurs go back to Texas as champions.
Numbers-wise, 2012-13 was among the best years of Parker’s career, from both the standard and advanced perspectives. He put up the second-best scoring and assist figures of his career and his overall shooting percentage was the second-best of his career. His PER was also near career-high levels and it ranked No. 3 among point guards (behind Paul and Westbrook). His Win Shares — adjusted for minutes played — ranked No. 5 overall and No. 2 among point guards (behind Paul). His +10.7 net rating trailed Westbrook but topped Paul; same thing with his +6.8 plus/minus. When it comes to RAPM, Paul placed well above both Westbrook and Parker. From a team perspective, Parker’s Spurs finished with 58 wins: less than Westbrook’s Thunder but more than Paul’s Clippers.
Take all of that together and this winds up being hair-splitting of the highest order. Paul’s individual credentials, in sum, appear to be the best of the three, even if he’s had the least amount of team success. That individual edge — in overall, offensive and defensive numbers — was enough to give Paul the nod in our final order. Westbrook finished third among the three in part because he’s coming off of a minor knee surgery. The lasting thought here should be that this is a race so tight that it will be re-fought every year for the foreseeable future. – B.G.
3. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers (G, 28)
2012-13 stats: 33.4 MPG, 16.9 PPG, 9.7 APG, 3.7 RPG, 2.4 SPG, 48.1 FG%, 32.8 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 26.4 PER, 13.9 Win Shares, +8.2 RAPM
This spot isn’t quite as iron-clad as the two that follow, but Paul has nonetheless made a rather firm claim to NBA bronze. He’s truly a master of his craft; Paul plays with his finger on the pulse of the game, and impeccably walks the line between scorer and facilitator. He always has a firm grasp of what it is that his team needs, and unlike other, elite guards with high basketball IQ, Paul has both the quickness and skill to provide.
Even the most basic passes are elevated by Paul’s touch, as every kick-out or drop-off is delivered with perfect placement and timing. Yet beyond that, he manages the seemingly impossible by way of his command off the dribble. While Paul benefits from an almost supernatural court vision, he’s also able to eke passes through tight quarters by firing them off quickly with one hand. By the saving the time it would otherwise take to put two hands on the ball, Paul is able to capitalize on tiny, closing windows without much risk of defensive intrusion. Other great point guards have employed the same technique, but Paul’s one-armed feeds can be absurdly zippy considering the microsecond release and nonexistent wind-up involved.
Such passing efforts are surely aided by Paul’s outstanding shooting from everywhere inside the arc — a universal effectiveness that causes defenses to crumble from the inside. Once Paul begins to penetrate off the dribble — a frequent occurrence given his incredible one-on-one game — several defenders are often at his whim. He goes to amazing lengths in denying his man the opportunity to recover; after beating his defender (or shedding him in the pick-and-roll), Paul essentially boxes him out the rest of the way — never letting him resume front-side position, and thus requiring the help of other defenders at virtually all times. That approach opens up all kinds of fascinating avenues for Paul to explore, particularly as a member of the Clippers. Playing with consistent lob threats is a perfect canvas to showcase Paul’s creativity, and he manages to pull the attention of opposing bigs for just long enough to fire up a clean shot to a hovering Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan.
By getting so deep into the paint and warranting so much attention, Paul tests the discipline of every opposing defender he encounters. Most tend to buckle at some point, given that they’d rather not concede an open jumper or layup to a poised, willing scorer. As a result, Paul often sees the floor open up for him the longer he loiters in and around the paint — thus providing a perfect vehicle for his playmaking talents. With such compromise comes quality shots; not only was Paul able to create open looks for himself and get to the basket consistently, but per Hoopdata he ranked second in the league last season in assists leading to both shots at the rim and beyond the three-point arc.
He’s an orchestrator of the highest order, and his influence bears out in the Clippers’ performance. Even with capable backup guards behind him last season in Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford, Paul’s presence on the floor translated to an offensive difference of 10.8 points per 100 possessions — the margin between a league-best defense and one of the five worst. That’s the magnitude of in play with a star of Paul’s magnitude, to say nothing of what he brings to the table as a crafty, aggravating defender.
There’s no room this high in our ranking for anything short of a two-way player, and Paul’s fiery disposition and incredibly active hands allow him hold his own in most any matchup. He can be dwarfed in size or overpowered by bigger guards, but — as he tends to in every aspect of his game — Paul finds a way. He claws, he pushes, he smothers, and ultimately he provides a furious front-line option to help halt opposing ball handlers at the top of the floor. Such determined, aggressive coverage isn’t without its risks, but that Paul so consistently victimize his opponents only enhances his overall value. — R.M.
2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder (F, 24)
2012-13 stats: 38.5 MPG, 28.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.3 BPG, 51 FG%, 41.6 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 28.3 PER, 18.9 Win Shares, +8 RAPM
Ninety-eight of the 100 spots on this list were up for debate. The top two? Decided without so much as a word of discussion.
Durant made it clear to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins in April that he understands both the certainty that exists at the very top of the NBA’s totem pole and his standing on the second rung. “I’ve been second my whole life. … I’m tired of being second … I’m done with it,” the Thunder All-Star forward said before the playoffs. Yet here he is again.
The No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft made his fourth All-Star Game and was named to his fourth straight All-NBA First Team in 2012-13, but he racked up plenty of new “seconds” for his mantle. He finished second — again — in the MVP voting. After three straight years as the NBA’s scoring champ, Durant finished second — by a fraction — in this year’s scoring race. His PER ranked No. 2 in the NBA. His Win Shares ranked No. 2 in the NBA. His WARP ranked No. 2 in the NBA. He ranked No. 2 in the NBA in true shooting percentage and in free throw attempts. His RAPM ranked No. 3 in the NBA overall, but ranked No. 2 among players with at least 10,000 possessions. His offensive rating ranked No. 5 in the NBA overall, but ranked No. 2 among players with at least 900 field goal attempts. Oklahoma City’s offensive efficiency ranked No. 2 in the NBA and the Thunder finished with the NBA’s second-best record.
This “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” storyline is particularly annoying because Durant’s 2012-13 season would have been out-of-this-world absurd in any realm that didn’t include LeBron James. At just 24, Durant slapped together one of the most impressive offensive seasons in NBA history. Any time a lead scoring option puts together a 50/40/90 shooting season it’s special, but to do it given the volume of Durant’s shooting is virtually unprecedented. Only one player besides Durant has managed a 50/40/90 season while taking at least 1,400 field goals: Larry Bird in 1987 and 1988. No other player besides Durant, not even Bird, has managed a 50/40/90 season while taking at least 1,400 field goals and 300 three-pointers.
All that efficient offense helped Durant post a career-best 122 offensive rating, but he took big strides on the other end, too. He set career-highs in blocks and steals while also posting a career-best 100 defensive rating. That two-way play was a key factor in Oklahoma City enjoying loads of blowout victories last season, and the Thunder’s +9.2 margin of victory was the second-best of any team in the post-Jordan era (only the 2008 Celtics were better). In the short term, these accomplishments went for naught in the playoffs, as Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury and Durant was unable to singlehandedly conquer the Grizzlies’ team defense. History should remember Durant’s amazing season, though, unless he raises the bar even higher next year. – B.G.
1. LeBron James, Miami Heat (F, 28)
2012-13 stats: 37.9 MPG, 26.8 PPG, 8 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 56.5 FG%, 40.6 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 31.6 PER, 19.3 Win Shares, +10.1 RAPM
We hold these truths to be self-evident.
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