Top 100 players of 2014: Nos. 10-1
After a meandering list of also-rans and runners-up, the top 10 has finally arrived.
The Point Forward is proud to offer up the final installment of our top 100 players in the NBA — an exhaustive exercise that sought 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. 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. For more on the limitations of this exercise, take a quick detour here. For notable omissions, click here.
In case you missed them, here’s our rankings from Nos. 100-1:
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.
10. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks (F, 29)
2012-13 stats: 37 MPG, 28.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, 44.9 FG%, 37.9 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 24.8 PER, 9.5 Win Shares, +2.3 RAPM
Anthony’s move to New York in 2011 put him on a much larger stage, serving to escalate the passionate debate that’s long raged between his supporters and detractors. It’s unclear whether the terms of that debate have meaningfully shifted, even after a season in which the Knicks won their first playoff series since 2000 and Anthony become the only player besides LeBron James to receive a first-place MVP vote. Yes, Anthony led the league in scoring for the first time in his career, he registered a career-high PER that ranked No. 4 in the league, and he earned All-Star and All-NBA Second Team honors. And, yes, the Knicks, designed to make the most of Anthony’s strengths, ranked No. 3 in offensive efficiency.
But the biggest recent developments in Anthony’s game — his use as both a three and a four, and the increased frequency with which he launches three-pointers — seem to be positive wrinkles rather than quantum leaps. Look, it’s tough and unfair to compare anyone to James, but that’s always been the standard for Anthony. The two came into the NBA in the same draft class, they play the same position, and Anthony has publicly declared his desire to win a title, something James has now delivered twice. Here’s a snapshot look at their statistical developments as they have progressed through their twenties.
Age 22: 28.9 PPG, 22.4 FGA, 47.6 FG%, 26.8 3FG%, 6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 22.1 PER, 7.3 Win Shares
Age 25: 28.2 PPG, 21.8 FGA, 45.8 FG%, 31.6 3FG%, 6.6 RPG, 3.2 APG, 22.2 PER, 7.9 Win Shares
Age 28: 28.7 PPG, 22.2 FGA, 44.9 FG%, 37.9 3FG%, 6.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, 24.8 PER, 9.5 Win Shares
Age 22: 27.3 PPG, 20.8 FGA, 47.6 FG%, 31.9 3FG%, 6.7 RPG, 6 APG, 24.5 PER, 13.7 Win Shares
Age 25: 29.7 PPG, 20.1 FGA, 50.3 FG%, 33.3 3FG%, 7.3 RPG, 8.6 APG, 31.1 PER, 18.5 Win Shares
Age 28: 26.8 PPG, 17.8 FGA, 56.4 FG%, 40.6 3FG%, 8 RPG, 7.3 APG, 31.6 PER, 19.3 Win Shares
With James, you see a true evolution, especially during his Miami period. With Anthony, the story has been one of mere consistency, plus some improvement as a three-point shooter that’s bumped up his advanced numbers a touch. James has transformed into the most lethal, efficient weapon in the game; Anthony has seemingly become a slightly better version of himself, and his stagnant, unimpressive defensive ratings and his wavering plus-minus numbers over the years only reinforce this conclusion. New York’s impressive team defensive performance in 2011-12 didn’t stick; neither did Anthony’s one-year improvement as a distributor that season.
Anthony, then, is more or less the same player that he’s been for the last half-decade. He shoots a lot, scores a lot, makes baskets in many different ways and from many different locations, draws lots of fouls and defensive attention, and he rebounds well for his position. He isn’t excactly in James’ class when it comes to lockdown defense on opposing wings and he’s definitely no Rajon Rondo when it comes to sharing the rock.
Indeed, Anthony led the NBA with his 35.6 usage rate, which marked a career-high. He also posted his lowest assist total of his career and a 14.1 assist percentage, his lowest mark since 2005. That combination of an extraordinarily high usage rate and a middling assist rate puts Anthony among the greatest black holes the NBA has ever seen. Only two other players — George Gervin in 1982 and Dominique Wilkins in 1988 — have used such a large share of possessions while registering such a low assist rate. For comparison, Kobe Bryant, notorious for his ball-dominating ways, hasn’t posted an assist percentage below 22 since 1999. Sorry, Anthony’s “hockey assists” can’t explain this away.
Even those who wish Anthony would be a little less single-minded on offense, a little more selective with his shots, and way more committed on defense can acknowledge that he’s an overall offensive powerhouse capable of serving as the No. 1 guy on a championship contender, assuming the right mix is in place around him. Will Anthony ever find that right mix, or will James continue to lord over him like Michael Jordan did to so many of his talented contemporaries? – Ben Golliver
9. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers (G, 35)
2012-13 stats: 38.6 MPG, 27.3 PPG, 6 APG, 5.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 46.3 FG%, 32.4 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 23 PER, 10.9 Win Shares, +3.2 RAPM
“Bryant, 35, suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in April and his return date is unclear.”
That is the mandatory first sentence of every discussion about L.A.’s living legend this fall, a sentence that reflects Bryant’s advancing age, the severity of his injury and the reality of his future, three factors that make it exceedingly difficult to place him in the Top 10, let alone the top 100. Throw in the Lakers’ loss of Dwight Howard to the Rockets, and Bryant joins Rajon Rondo (knee injury and rebuilding team) and Andrew Bynum (knee injuries and new team this summer) as the toughest guys to peg. So why did Bryant, unlike the other two, hold a spot near the very top of this list?
The answer is a combination of the following factors: Bryant, had an extraordinary individual season in 2012-13, he has a near-mythical ability to play through pain and recover from injuries, and his track record of excellence is so damn long that it demands an extra level of respect and benefit of the doubt. Is it reasonable to assume a player like James Harden (No. 11 on this list), fully healthy and a full decade younger than Bryant, will move past him on the 2015 version of this list? Absolutely. Does it feel wrong to make that call right now without seeing what Bryant looks like this year? It does. It’s one thing to move Dwyane Wade — a three-time champion and nine-time All-Star — past Bryant. But Harden, a one-time All-Star with 85 career starts and a lackluster playoff résumé? Not yet. Soon, but not yet.
L.A.’s 2012-13 season was a mess, in large part because a functional relationship between Bryant and Howard just never materialized. Bryant wasn’t about to accommodate anyone, and Howard didn’t — couldn’t, really — possess the cachet to fully assert himself. What that left Lakers fans with was an up-and-down year, a furious finish, a fast playoff exit and one absolutely incredible campaign from Bryant. Only one man has matched Bryant’s PER and scoring average during his age-34 season: Michael Jordan. That Jordan accomplished this feat in 1997-98 and then immediately retired for the second time will surely fuel those who believe Bryant’s best days are behind him. Foreboding comparison aside, Bryant’s PER ranked in the top 10 overall and No. 2 among two guards, his Win Shares ranked No. 8 overall and No. 2 among two guards, and he earned All-Star and All-NBA First Team honors. In his last 22 games (not including a brief appearance against the Pacers when he tried to come back early from an ankle injury), Bryant averaged 30.4 points, 7.3 assists and 6.4 rebounds and the Lakers went 15-7 to squeeze into the playoff picture. It was a three-week tour de force that served as yet another reminder of why Bryant is so feared and revered by his fellow NBA players.
Defense is a different story. Although he clearly trails Wade in that department, Bryant escaped with a +2.7 net rating and a top-40 RAPM thanks to his top-shelf contributions on offense. The departure of Howard and Metta World Peace, L.A.’s two best defenders in 2012-13, will surely make Bryant’s frequent and obvious defensive breakdowns that much more debilitating. Bryant has flirted with the idea of retirement in recent years but he’s also been adamant about getting back onto the court following the Achilles injury, and he’s talked openly about his next contract negotiation too. Whenever the time does come for retirement, it will likely be because Bryant can no longer conjure up the scoring magic needed to overcome his lackluster and occasionally lost defense. – B.G.
8. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat (G, 31)
2012-13 stats: 34.7 MPG, 21. PPG, 5.1 APG, 5 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 52.1 FG%, 25.8 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 24 PER, 9.6 Win Shares, +4.5 RAPM
It’s always a bit odd to me when Wade is characterized as a secondary creator, as if playing with LeBron James made him something less of a superstar. With Miami, traditional hierarchy models need not apply; while James may take the lead for the Heat in many regards, Wade attempts all of two fewer shots per game while ranking in the league’s top 10 in usage rate. Ultimately, he uses more possessions than the first-option player on 26 of the league’s teams — a relative standing that reinforces his co-ownership of all that the Heat accomplish.
If James takes over, it’s because he has to; Wade has been hit with recurring knee injuries during each of Miami’s championship runs, and with those injuries come pretty clear limitations. Wade has managed to put up some strong all-around numbers (4.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game in the 2013 playoffs, just a tick below his season averages) in spite of that, but clearly lacked the ability to properly exploit defenders who wandered away to help against James or others. It’s a misleading sight for those who only tune in for the playoffs, as the postseason framing of a hobbled Wade omits so much of what makes him great.
He remains one of the league’s very best slashers, strong and long enough to overwhelm most of the players unfortunate enough to draw his assignment. That tall task begins with trying to make sense of Wade’s arrhythmic dribble. There are great scorers who manage to get by without much ball-handling creativity, but Wade toys with the cadence of his bounce as a means of manipulating his defender’s expectations. Every burst or hesitation is a prompt, intended to induce a particular reaction and capitalize on it simultaneously. Even 10 years of scouting doesn’t much help Wade’s opponents from looking foolish, as he lulls them into overcommitting in one direction only to easily spin to the other.
The footwork involved in pulling off those drives also need be impeccable, as Wade has to both sell his defender on a particular fake while nonverbally convincing game officials of his move’s legality. It’s natural basketball instinct to call foul on that which seems peculiar, and on those grounds alone Wade might be wrongly whistled for more non-travels than any player in the league. He also gets away with a fair bit by virtue of being Dwyane Wade, though, so we’ll call it even on balance.
Wade uses his driving ability as a means to create for others, too, and has fared remarkably well as a dominant creator when James leaves the floor. While it should go without saying that Miami is at its best with both of its core stars complementing one another, last season Wade led LeBron-less Heat lineups to score at a rate of 108.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Wowy — a mark that would have ranked third in the entire league if cast as a season average. That’s a remarkable level of offensive success for a team playing without its best player, accomplished largely because Wade still generates offense at an incredible level while managing career-best shooting efficiency.
Also working in Wade’s favor: He’s one of the few high-level shooting guards on our list that plays a lick of defense. Wade might be guilty of lightly jogging back down the floor when he should be defending in transition, but otherwise he’s an essential piece of one of the league’s more unique breeds of coverage. Miami asks a lot of its wing players, if only because they’re capable. In Wade’s case, that translates to an inordinate amount of help relative to what you might see elsewhere around the league, much of which requires him to body up much bigger players in order to buy time or protect the rim. In that regard, Wade is a legitimate game-changer; his uncanny shot blocking ability makes him wholly unique among guards, while his physical profile empowers him to carry out the full mandates of Erik Spoelstra’s system.
That makes for a decisive advantage over Bryant, who seemingly goes out of his way to be a destructive defender, and Harden, who couldn’t be bothered to play much honest D last season. Wade has his quirks on that end, too (he’s prone to gambling, can struggle to keep up laterally when injured, etc.), though overall he’s such a unique asset on that end of the floor as to redeem consistent and legitimate value. — Rob Mahoney
7. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets (C, 27)
2012-13 stats: 35.8 MPG, 17.1 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 1.4 APG, 1.1 SPG, 57.8 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 19.4 PER, 7.6 Win Shares, +5.5 RAPM
Here’s where things get really dicey. We have in the midst of our top 10 two bigs well worthy of a favorable ranking, and yet by definition one must outdo the other. By way of this countdown, you already know the result of that comparison; Howard comes in at No. 7 while Tim Duncan has yet to be ranked, thus marking this a victory in favor of an all-time great and a notable loss for lovers of fart jokes everywhere.
That said, I don’t know that I completely agree with our final determination here; Duncan is coming off of such a remarkable season (and has staved off his career descent so many times) that I won’t dare complain, but I very much anticipate Howard reclaiming the spot as the league’s preeminent center this season. Duncan will undoubtedly still be great, it’s just a matter of two players going in opposite directions — one doing his damnedest to prolong the inevitable, while the other rebounds from gross, extenuating circumstances.
It’s crucial in this analysis to understand that last season’s version of Dwight Howard was not the genuine article. He was hindered for most of the season by back and shoulder injuries — ailments that limit range of motion and the application of athleticism. He was smothered by team and individual expectations that he struggled to meet as a result, and was thus prone to some pretty terrible body language. Howard also never had time to establish any kind of chemistry with his point guard; while Jameer Nelson was always an underrated part of Howard’s success in Orlando, Steve Nash’s own injuries rendered him an absentee playmaker. The Lakers’ first head coach of the season (Mike Brown) was fired after only a few games, thus sending an already reeling team further into its tailspin. Howard had to then — in a completely new system under Mike D’Antoni — strike the proper balance in playing with Pau Gasol, acclimate himself to a new locker room, and learn to play with other superstars for the first time in his NBA career. He also had to figure out the best way to coexist with Kobe Bryant as both a player and a person, neither of which seems particularly simple.
Even a few of those complications would be tough to handle, but altogether they proved to be too much. Howard was physically hurt while clearly out of sorts, and he played as such. Yet he was still the Lakers’ best defender by far, the team’s second-leading scorer, and one of the top rebounders in the league. He just wasn’t Dwight. The pain of Howard’s season was borne of comparison to his own lofty standard — those years of transformational defense and dominant offense that made last year look like a bungled mess by comparison.
It’s fair to evaluate Howard against his own track record, though in this case I don’t think it’s necessarily prudent to hold all of last season against him. Tear into him for his inconsistent defensive effort, his still-baffling free throw shooting, or his odd reluctance to play more in the pick-and-roll. It just doesn’t make much sense to hold him liable for all that went wrong with his and the Lakers’ season, nor to overlook all of the complexities involved in his struggles.
Howard is still fundamentally one of the best in the league when healthy, capable of making an inimitable defensive impact and playing a huge offensive role. He just needed better health, better luck, and a better fit — all of which he’ll likely get in Houston. Whether he’ll be good enough in his first year there to best Duncan is a fair point of debate, but I like his chances.
As good as Duncan was last season, peak-level Howard was decisively better. We can’t yet know how close Howard might get to again achieving those highs, but at the least I think he stands to be one of the deadliest bigs in the league when on the move (even in a down year, Howard converted an ungodly 79.6 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions last season, per Synergy Sports), a solid post-up option, and a worthy defensive anchor. If he further approximates his best seasons to date, he’ll be a clear-cut MVP candidate. Howard has the potential — based in recovery, not in development — to climb a rung above Duncan, and in that alone I think he has a compelling case. — R.M.
6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs (C, 37)
2012-13 stats: 30.1 MPG, 17.8 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.7 APG, 2.7 BPG, 50.2 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 24.4 PER, 8.3 Win Shares, +7.3 RAPM
Get up. No, seriously. Get up. Whether you’re in your cubicle, or on the bus, or in your living room, get up and give Duncan the standing ovation he deserves.
The initial reaction to seeing any big man ranked above Howard might lead to confusion and a desire to protest. That’s understandable: as recently as 2011 Howard was the No. 2 player in the league and Duncan seemed just about read to exit stage left. In 2015, two years from now, it seems more likely than not that Howard will once again be regarded as a top-five overall player; at that point, Duncan will have reached the end of his current contract and will almost certainly be headed for retirement.
But let’s not talk about 2011 or 2015. Let’s talk about 2013, a season in which Duncan was the league’s best big man, period. Duncan was the most important player on the NBA’s third-rated defense and the second-leading scorer on the No. 7 offense. He earned All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive Second Team, and All-Star honors, and he finished sixth in Defensive Player of the Year voting. His PER ranked No. 6 in the league, his RAPM ranked fourth in the league, his individual defensive rating led the league, he boasted a gaudy +10.5 net rating (among the very best in the league), and he registered more blocks (183) than fouls (117). The only player to post a PER as high as Duncan’s at this age was Karl Malone. Then, Duncan averaged 18.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks as he led San Antonio to a 15- 6 postseason record. In case you somehow forgot, he put up a whopping 30/17 Game 6 of the Finals, a stat line that only Shaquille O’Neal has matched in a Finals game since 1986. Duncan came within 5.2 seconds of his fifth NBA title and his fourth Finals MVP award. Let’s say that again for emphasis: he came within about six inches on one Ray Allen three-pointer of beating out a 28-year-old, top-of-the-world LeBron James for Finals MVP. That’s why you were asked to stand up and applaud at the opening of this section. (By the way, it’s cool to sit down now.)
Could this be the season Duncan finally declines (and stays declined)? That’s definitely a possibility, even though we’ve thought that before on numerous occasions. But if the choice here is to penalize Duncan for that possibility or to reward him for his historic season, that should be an easy one. Need more convincing? Compared to Howard, Duncan averaged more points, more assists and more blocks, less turnovers and less fouls, had a better PER, had a better Win Shares, had a better offensive rating, had a better defensive rating, and the Spurs totally outperformed the Lakers on defense while also ranking higher on offense. Duncan beat out Howard in All-NBA and All-Defensive and Defensive Player of the Year voting, and Duncan won more games against the Heat in the Finals (3) than Howard has won over the past three playoffs combined (2). You don’t need Shaquille O’Neal to tell you that Duncan has a better all-around offensive game and a more refined defensive game than Howard, or that, in addition to this year’s long playoff run, Duncan also went to the 2012 Western Conference finals.
The off-court comparison is even more lopsided: Duncan has consistently served as the pillar of the league’s best organization over the last 15 years, getting the most out of stars and non-stars alike while not caring who gets the credit (and being showered with praise/credit by his Hall of Fame coach, Gregg Popovich). Howard has made a mess of two straight seasons, watched as two of his coaches were fired (Stan Van Gundy and Mike Brown), had friction with a third coach (Mike D’Antoni), had a GM cut loose (Otis Smith), snapped at another GM while being ejected from the playoffs (Mitch Kupchak), burned locker room bridges in both L.A. and Orlando, and failed to get along with stars and non-stars alike.
On the flip side, Howard averaged more rebounds and shot a higher percentage. So he’s got that going for himself, which is nice.
Still not convinced Duncan should be above Howard? Ask yourself this: If both teams are fully healthy come playoff time, who would you pick in a Spurs/Rockets match-up? Which player, Duncan or Howard, do you trust to show up? – B.G.