Group H: “He’s Young, Puts Up Great Stats, And Isn’t A Winner. We Hate Ourselves For Listening To Your Deal”
24. DeMarcus Cousins
Cousins should be in the top 10. He has that much talent. How many 23 year old centers averaged 23 and 12, with a PER over 26? If only Cousins could be surrounded by well-respected vets. The Kings made the poor decision of building their entire team around Cousins. He’s good enough to build around, but at this stage in his career, he needs other All-Star caliber vets to show him the ropes. Despite Cousins’ attitude problems, he’s still one of the best players in the league. Cousins needs to be on a good team with good players. Liken him to Zach Randolph. Cousins is more talented and a little crazier than Randolph. Remember though: Randolph had his share of issues when he was on the JailBlazers. It wasn’t until he joined the Grizzlies that he really turned his career around. Cousins could do the same if in the right situation.
23. Kyrie Irving
A couple years ago, it looked like Irving would be a top 7 guy for the next decade. He put up great numbers and was extremely young. Life wasn’t so bad for Cavs fans, replacing LeBron with Kyrie. Then people started to realize that the Cavs weren’t making any progress with Kyrie. Was it his fault? He’s supposedly a superstar, so he gets the blame if his team wins 25 games every year.
There’s the idea that Kyrie is just chucking to pad his stats, while his team suffers. And that he’s not a team player. Go ahead and compare his stats to Isaiah Thomas’ of the Kings. Or compare them to Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury, two cautionary tales of point guards that cared more about individual accolades than winning. However you spin it, Kyrie Irving’s game and ability to lead a franchise are in question after last season. The East was incredibly weak, and most people expected the Cavs to at least reach make the playoffs, and make a run sort of like the Wizards did. It’s not time to panic on Kyrie, but it is time to give pause on his borderline-superstar status.
Group G: “He’s Led Us To The Promised Land Before And We’ll Never Trade Him.”
22. Tony Parker
Parker is better than several guys ahead of him on this list. He’s only this low because he’s 32, even on a bargain $12.5 million salary next year in the final year of his deal. Everyone always says CP3 is the best point guard in the league. Why isn’t Parker? He’s should always be in the top 10 of the MVP voting. He’s one of the best players, not point guards, but players in the entire league. The guy doesn’t age. He still gets into the paint like he did when he was 25. For some reason, Parker is often left out of the ‘best point guard in the game’ discussion. Tell me this though: if you were trying to win a championship next season, who would you want: Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook? Parker is one of the best players and teammates in the league.
21. Tim Duncan
Duncan is impossible to fit on this list. The Spurs would NEVER trade him. Never. He means too much the Spurs franchise. He IS the Spurs. He is going to retire a Spur. It’s no different than Kobe Bryant. The difference is Kobe missed an entire year due to injury and looks close to done. Duncan, although THIRTY-FRICKING-EIGHT years old, is still one of the best players in the league! Popovich’s minute restrictions have let Duncan stay fresh these past few years. Duncan deserves to be in the ‘best player since Jordan’ conversation just as much as Kobe and LeBron. He is the best teammate the league has seen, maybe ever. And he’s one of the seven or eight best players to ever play in the league.
20. Dirk Nowitzki
Same thing applies to Dirk. The Mavs would NEVER trade him. He has been too valuable for too long in Dallas. He is synonymous with the Dallas Mavericks. But that’s not why he’s so far up this list. Dirk’s spot (and Duncan’s too) is not like Kobe’s contract: it’s not just a reward for what they’ve done in the past. Dirk, even at 36, is one of the best players in the league. He nearly led the Mavs past the champion Spurs in the first round. Dirk hasn’t had a stellar supporting cast in the past few years, and yet the Mavericks have stayed relevant. When he takes a big pay cut this summer, don’t underestimate the Mavs if they get some better surrounding players.
Group F: “He’s Integral To Our Future. It’ll Take $1.50 On the Dollar To Pry Him From Us”
19. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka proved his worth to the Thunder in the playoffs. When he went down with a calf strain, the Thunder were demolished by the Spurs in the Games 1 and 2. It was not until Ibaka made his surprising return to the floor that the Conference Finals became competitive. Ibaka looked like OKC’s most important player. Then again, that’s how it looked last postseason too when Westbrook went down with his knee injury. Maybe OKC is so thin that losing any member of its Big 3 is enough to make them purely pedestrian. Regardless, making a little over $36 million over the next three years and being only 24 years old, Ibaka is essential to OKC’s future. The Harden deal doesn’t need to be rehashed, but it’s worth noting that at the time of that deal, most people claimed that Harden was much more valuable than Ibaka. That’s not true. He was second in the league in blocks. He’s the rim protector and third scorer that the Thunder need. Without him, their defense collapses and their offensive spacing is gone.
18. Andre Drummond
Will Andre Drummond get any better, or has he maxed out? Seems crazy to ask considering he’s only 20 years old. He was a little better in year two than as a rookie. He’s still raw offensively, and shot 42% from the foul line. Some people think he’s the next Shaq. That’s obviously his best-case scenario, but pretty unlikely. He averaged 14 and 13, and was in the top 10 in the league in blocks. He’s the centerpiece for Detroit’s future. He might not be a superstar, and if his progression plateaus, then he’ll certainly drop on this list. If he does improve though, and fulfill people’s expectations and hopes of him, becoming a 24 and 12 type of player in the near future, then he’ll be right up there with Anthony Davis. Drummond could easily just be a rim protector that scores off of garbage points. It would be disappointing if he just becomes a poor man’s Dwight Howard.
17. Bradley Beal
Paul George says Beal is already a superstar. The rest of us aren’t yet convinced. Beal looked like he turned the corner in the playoffs, but he only looked slightly above average in the regular season. He’s a volume scorer. That just means he’s an inefficient scorer right now. He is a great spot up shooter. Off the dribble though, Beal misses way more than an elite shooter should. His game still needs to be rounded out. He needs to improve his handle and get to the rim more. If he is just a spot up shooter in the next few years, then he’ll fall out of the top 40 of this list. If he develops the weaker areas of his game, he could become a premier scorer in the league and be a perennial All-Star. Many Wizards fans would consider him more valuable and important to the future than John Wall. Beal has a higher ceiling, being just 20 years old. Want to know how valuable the Wizards think Beal is? They’d rather him than Kevin Love.
Group E: “He’s Not A Winner, But He’s Our Superstar. Don’t Tell Anyone We’re Taking Your Call.”
16. Dwight Howard
He’s still the best center in the league. It’s not as clear-cut as it used to be. Lots of people claim they’d rather have Marc Gasol or Joakim Noah. That has as much to do with ability as it does to their dislike of Howard’s personality. Let’s be honest. Howard is annoying. He’s a try-hard that desperately wants to be liked. That’s not what you want out of your superstar or leader. And fine, he’s not the same player he was in Orlando. So what? He’s still one of the best defensive centers in the league and capable of putting up 20 and 10.
15. Carmelo Anthony
If not for Carmelo’s title run at Syracuse, it’d be fair to question whether he can really lead a team. Actually, it’s still fair to question that. He’s been to the Conference Finals once in his career. He couldn’t even get his team into the playoffs last year IN THE EAST. He’s 30 years old. He’s about to get a max contract. He’s a ball-hog. So what’s he got going for him? After Durant, Carmelo is the best pure scorer in the league. He’s one of the most confident players in the league. He’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone and not blink. He’s at that stage of his career that KG, Pierce, and Ray Allen were at when they joined forces in Boston–it’s that stage, where stats stop mattering. All that matters is winning. When superstars have that frame of mind, all hell usually breaks loose. Carmelo is going to join a team where he can win and contend for a title. He knows he can’t do it alone. He’ll go somewhere where he can get help. And when he does, watch out. He should realize at this stage he needs to play defense, share the ball, and take over the game when called upon. If he signs on somewhere, hoping to do what he did in New York, he’s going to get more of the same.
14. Kevin Love
Love is not better than Carmelo. Love easily could’ve been grouped together with Kyrie and Cousins. Many people speculate that Love is a toxic guy in the locker room, very moody and selfishly seeking stats. They speculate that Love doesn’t close guys out in defense sometimes so that he can be in better rebounding position. Not that different than when Rondo was chasing the double-digit assists record. Bill Simmons had noted that Rondo would often pass up better shots in order to rack up his assists. It was very selfish play in the guise of unselfishness. Love is not with Cousins or Kyrie because there haven’t been as many bad stories about him. Much of the personal criticism is just speculation. And we can give him a pass, sort of at least, for not making the playoffs because he’s in the West. You can win 48 games and miss the playoffs in the West. Lots of analytic stat guys think the Wolves should’ve won around 50 games last season. Love gets the nod over ‘Melo and Howard because of age. He’s only 25 years old and he puts up 26 and 13 per night. If Kevin Love and Blake Griffin switched teams for a year, we might have the same questions about Griffin, and it could be Love finishing third in the MVP voting.
13. Chris Paul
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. He’s the best point guard in the NBA. So, why has he only reached the Conference Finals once? His teams haven’t lacked that much talent. He had Tyson Chandler and David West. Now he has Blake Griffin, and perhaps the most stacked roster in the league. When are we going to stop giving CP3 a pass? Somehow, he has eluded criticism, while his most similar counterpart, Dwight Howard gets shredded by the media. It might just come down to likability. Chris Paul, or should I say Cliff Paul, is charismatic, more likable than whiny Dwight Howard. Forget that Paul is a notorious flopper. He’s a winner. Dwight Howard isn’t. Even though Howard single-handedly carried his team to the Finals, something Paul never did. I’m not all cynical on Paul. I do believe he’s the best point guard in the league. But he’s 29 and has a roster more than talented enough to win a championship. It’s time for him to prove he’s a winner.
Group D: “He’s Close To Superstardom. There’s No Way We Could Trade Him Now.”
12. John Wall
Wall has received his share of criticism since he entered the league. And I’m not referring to Colin Cowherd’s ranting over Dougie’ing. Especially Wizards fans have seen enough bricks thrown up by Wall and one-on-four fast breaks to question his ability. But after the Wizards were only two games away from the Conference Finals, and people could finally actually envision how lethal a Wall-Beal combo in the backcourt could be, the public’s opinion on Wall changed. It seems that Wall has developed some basketball sense, a sense of pace, knowing when to push the break and when to take it easy. You know, things you’d expect a number one overall pick point guard, coached by a supposedly very good coach. Still, two years ago, the Wiz were 5-28 without Wall. 24-25 with him. He’ll always have some holes in his game. He’s improved his shooting from 3 considerably, up to 35%. Much better than the 7% he was at the year before! It’s not time to anoint him just yet, but Wizards fans can finally look forward to the future. I’m crossing my fingers, by the way.
11. Damian Lillard
Big Shot Dame. Lillard is the real deal. Just ask Kobe.
Lillard is already one of the best point guards in the league. He’s one of the most confident and clutch players in the league. Given Steph Curry’s ankles and Russ Westbrook’s knees, is it that obvious that you’d rather have them over Lillard? There’s not much else to say, other than Damian Lillard is the real deal. If you don’t believe Kobe, ask the Rockets.
Group C: “We Think He’s Good Enough To Win Us A Championship”
10. James Harden
It’s difficult to put Harden so far up this list. He’s a DH. He doesn’t play defense. Doesn’t even try. How are you supposed to win a title when your best player sets that kind of example? Harden is one of least fun guys to watch. His defense is a joke. He’s one of the biggest floppers in the league. He better be careful. He’s treading very dangerous territory. He can continue to put up amazing numbers, but he’s starting to look a little like a poor man’s T-Mac. The Thunder got killed for trading Harden, and they never should have. But in the current landscape, maybe OKC had it right. Maybe Harden really is just the third best player on a title-caliber team. Winning with him as your franchise player? Not so easy.
9. LaMarcus Aldridge
For a while last year, it looked like Aldridge would be firmly in the MVP conversation. The Blazers dropped off a little bit, and Aldridge was forgotten about again. Until he dismantled the Rockets in the playoffs. People might have taken it a bit too far after that series. Regardless, Aldridge is only 28 years old and one of the hardest players to guard in the entire league. He is an absolute beast from the mid-range and his game will translate well as he ages due to his skill level. He might not be able to win a title as the lead guy, but he is the ideal second option on a great team. If the Blazers had been able to dethrone the Spurs (not happening in a thousand years), Aldridge would have found himself in the top five of this list, easy.
8. Stephen Curry
26 years old. Only $34 million over the next three years? How the hell did the Warriors ever manage to pull off that heist? Curry is one of the best players in the game. He’s the best shooter the league has seen in some time. He can catch fire like no one else in the league. Curry and the Warriors nearly beat the Spurs two years ago in the second round, and the Warriors could have made a deep run if not for Bogut’s injury last year. If the Warriors can get Kevin Love, they’ll be a top 3 team in the West. A Curry-Love pick and pop would be impossible to stop. It’d be up there with Nash-Dirk back in the day. The Warriors can win with Curry as their best player. Sure, it’s not like he’s a defensive stopper. But at least he tries. He has an edge over Harden there. Curry is one of the toughest guys in the league to hard. He’s up there with Durant as guys who give coaches all-nighters trying to prepare for. And let’s not forget Curry is one of the best passers and teammates in the league. It’s really a shame the Thunder took Harden over him in the draft. Just think if the Thunder had a Durant-Westbrook-Curry trio. Moving on before I lose it.
Group B: “Superstars For the Next Decade. Stop Calling Us. It Won’t Happen.”
7. Paul George
After the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals when George went toe-to-toe with LeBron and surprisingly put the Heat on the brink of elimination, it looked like George had made ‘the jump.’ You know, the superstar jump. And he did, for the first half of the 2014 regular season. Then, things went downhill. There was the story of him getting a stripper pregnant, and offering to pay for the abortion. Then there was the story of Paul George getting catfished. And then later, in the playoffs, there was that brief week or so, when the Internet was convinced George had slept with Roy Hibbert’s fiancée. George even admitted that all of the rumors and distractions were getting to him, affecting his play on the court. The Pacers were a mess in the second half of the year and George, while not even close to solely responsible for it, did nothing to help. Until the All-Star break, George looked like a legitimate MVP candidate, and then after that, he looked like a number two option, at best. The Pippen comparison is weak and overused. It’s lazy to just compare any defensive stopper with a somewhat limited offensive game to Scottie Pippen. George has to learn how to get to the rim and the foul line more often if he wants to be a real superstar. Right now, he’s just a streaky jump shooter. He’s only 24 though, and already one of the best players in the league.
6. Russell Westbrook
It was so hard to leave Westbrook here. He could be ahead of Durant. It’s not as crazy as it sounds, even in KD’s MVP season. Westbrook is crazy enough to think he’s better than anyone. He already thinks he’s better than Durant. If LeBron is the best athlete in the NBA, then Westbrook is 1A. He can get to the rim whenever he wants. No one can stay in front of him. There are some questions about his game and personality though: 1) Can he lead a team? 2) Can he improve his shot selection? 3) Can he improve his shooting, considering he was below 32% from the perimeter? 4) Can he coexist with Durant? If, or until, Durant develops a low-post game, Westbrook could be argued as more important to the Thunder than Durant. Westbrook is the most explosive and exciting player in the league. He could average 30 points on plenty of teams, but that’s not what OKC needs from him. They need him to be a playmaker and get lesser players wide open shots, sort of like Rondo does. The idea that the Thunder would benefit from trading Westbrook is asinine and just lacks any creativity. Westbrook is easily one of the ten best players in basketball. You don’t trade a guy like him unless you’re getting some extraordinary.
5. Kawhi Leonard
Go ahead, call me crazy. The Spurs would never trade Kawhi. A 22 year old Finals MVP. A superstar on any other team, but in San Antonio, there are no superstars. (Don’t tell me Tim Duncan. He was a superstar. Not anymore.) Kevin Durant saying that Leonard is just a product of the Spurs system reflects poorly on Durant’s understanding of the game. Maybe he’s just bitter that the Thunder were outclassed by the Spurs. Quite frankly, Durant needs to be quiet. Leonard is going to get a max contract the second his rookie deal expires in two years. He’ll be the face of Spurs in the post-Duncan/Parker/Ginobili era. He stared down LeBron James in the biggest stage. The list of guys who could do that in the NBA Finals is very, very short. Imagine if the Pacers hadn’t traded his rights on draft night for George Hill. A nucleus of George-Leonard-Stephenson would be unfairly good. The Pacers would easily have the best wings in the NBA. Instead, Leonard will carry the torch for the Spurs and smoothly transition them to their next era.
4. Blake Griffin
Griffin made the leap. Not the more common leap from very good to All-Star. He made the leap from All-Star to absolute superstar, focal point of a 57-win team. Griffin is absolute beast in the paint, one of the three best athletes in the NBA, along with LeBron and Westbrook. He’s only 25. He’s learning how to shoot the ball. Doc Rivers’ influence on his game has done wonders. The Clippers are Blake’s team, not CP3’s. Blake can carry a playoff team now. You couldn’t say that 12 months ago. He’s more versatile, smarter, and more effective in the paint. Griffin finished third in the MVP voting behind LeBron and KD. He’s entered a stratosphere just below LeBron and Durant, but above most of the other superstars. He’s close. Close to entering that level we figured he’d never reach.
Group A: “Don’t Ask. Don’t Even Look. N-O.”
3. Anthony Davis
The future of the NBA. Davis is this generation’s Duncan/KG mix. He led the league in blocks. He was top 10 in rebounds. He was top 15 in scoring. He’s 21 years old. Let me repeat: HE’S TWENTY-ONE!!!!!!!! He made his first All-Star game this year. He would’ve won Rookie of the Year if not for some injuries. Davis could be the best big man we’ve seen in… I don’t want to overstate things, especially considering Tim Duncan just won his fifth ring and is commonly called the best power forward ever. But Davis could have a Duncan-like career. As soon as the Pelicans find Davis some semi-legitimate teammates, you’ll see in the playoffs every year. He’s too good. He’s the best rim protector in the league. His scoring will only go up. He’s an elite rebounder. There’s nothing NOT to like about Davis’ game. He’s a future Hall of Famer. It wouldn’t be that crazy to put him ahead of LeBron and Durant. He is, after all, TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD.
2. Kevin Durant
Some people would be tempted to put KD number one. Their reasoning would be two-fold: 1) Durant won MVP and 2) LeBron lost the Finals, again. Well, sorry to say, but LeBron is still the best player in the league, and it’s not even very close right now. There’s no way the 6’4″ Tony Allen should EVER stop Durant, as he did in the first round of the playoffs. Is Durant “Mr. Unreliable?” Of course not. Not even close. But he is Cleveland LeBron and pre-2011 Dirk. He’s an elite scorer without a legitimate post-game. And that allows smaller, stronger players to give Durant fits on the perimeter. Chris Paul shouldn’t be able to bother Durant in the slightest. By the start of next season, Durant will be 26. It will be his eighth season in the league. It’s not even close to warranted to say Durant is a choker or can’t win it all. But this is the time. This is Oklahoma City’s window. Durant doesn’t want to be remembered as the second best player of his era. The guy who was left ring-less because of LeBron.
1. LeBron James
The obvious answer. The best player in the league. The guy who’s led his team to four straight Finals appearances, despite receiving no help this past year. The best playmaker in the league. He had a down year by his standard, averaging 27-7-6. Far and away the best player in the league. He can shoot from the perimeter. He can post up. He can hit the open guy. He can bring it up court. He can stop the other team’s best player. He can do it all. LeBron James is 29 years old. He will be 30 next year, firmly in the middle of his prime. We don’t know what jersey he will be wearing, but he will be the best player, no matter what. He could go to any team in the East and that team would instantly become the favorite to win the East. He could go to the West and instantly make any team a playoff team. Unless something drastic happens, LeBron will be at the top of this list next year. And the year after that, too. He’s simply the best player in basketball.