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Biggest questions from top 10 of SI.com's Top 100 NBA players of 2017
5:18 | NBA
Biggest questions from top 10 of SI.com's Top 100 NBA players of 2017
Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney
Thursday September 15th, 2016

SI.com is proud to offer our list of the Top 100 NBA players of 2017, an exhaustive exercise that seeks to define who will be the league's best players in the 2016-17 season.

Given the wide variety of candidates 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, including: per-game and per-minute statistics, splits, advanced metrics, play-type data and more. This list 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. Our sole concern was how players are likely to perform in the coming season alone.

Injuries and injury risks are an inevitable component of that judgment. Past performance (postseason included) weighed heavily in our assessment, with a skew toward the recent. First-year players were not included for that reason, among others. A predictive element also came into play with the anticipated improvement of certain younger players, as well as the possible decline of aging veterans. Salary was not taken into consideration. Otherwise, players were ordered based on their complete games—offense and defense both, along with everything in between.

NBA
The biggest snubs from SI.com's Top 100 NBA players of 2017

This season’s list welcomes 23 newcomers while sending off Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and a host of others. Some players who had made every previous Top 100 cut fell out of the mix entirely. A few made unexpected pushes for first-time inclusion. Injuries and age-related decline also shook up the middle of our ranking dramatically, transforming tiers that had previously been dominated by Top-100 mainstays.

To jump to the top 10 portion of our list, click here.

Even with all those changes, rounding out the top 100 included some tough calls. The list of notable omissions is dotted with players both well regarded and largely deserving, though lines ultimately had to be drawn somewhere. For those interested in understanding more about the ranking process and the limitations of this exercise in general, make a quick detour here.

NBA
Fell-off list: Biggest absences from SI.com's Top 100 NBA players of 2017

Please feel free to take a look back to SI.com’s Top 100 Players of 2016, 2015 and 2014. A special thanks, as always, to those resources that make researching a list like this possible: Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, Nylon Calculus, Synergy Sports, and 82Games. 

Monday September 12th, 2016

Looking for a seat on the Devin Booker hype train? If so, be prepared to squeeze in between the likes of LeBron James and Drake. The buzz around Booker, a 2015 lottery pick, has steadily climbed since he made the most of Phoenix’s lost year to average 19.2 PPG and 4.1 APG after the All-Star break. His brief cameo at the 2016 Las Vegas Summer League was met with rave reviews, as he displayed the knockdown shooting stroke that got him drafted, some nice playmaking instincts in traffic, and a fiery competitiveness that suggests he’s only just getting started. At 19, Booker is the youngest player and only teenager on this year’s Top 100, a fact that should inspire awe and caution alike. Development at this stage tends to come in fits and starts, and Booker will need to reclaim his role in Phoenix’s backcourt with veterans Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight back from injury. Still, Booker possesses enough natural talent, scoring ability and comfort on the ball to make betting on a sophomore breakthrough feel like a safe proposition. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ Booker’s rookie stats compare favorably to Bradley Beal’s age-19 numbers
+ Picked at No. 13, Booker ranked fourth in his class in points per game
His atrocious -3.87 Defensive Real-Plus Minus ranked 171st out of 174 guards
– Booker's 3P% tumbled hard as his usage increased after the All-Star break
 

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

The “Butt Dunk” was one of the most ingenious Slam Dunk Contest entries ever. Ever. But Aaron Gordon is already much more than a dunker. Make no mistake, the bounce and energy behind Gordon’s slamming prowess is the central force in his overall game at this point: he puts his leaping ability and high activity level to good use in myriad ways, pursuing second-chance points, clearing the defensive glass, skying for the occasional weakside help block and even pushing the pace in transition by himself occasionally. Although Gordon was only a part-time starter in his second season, he got a lot done in the minutes he filled, grading out well in all of the major advanced stats. As he enters Year Three—and prepares to play for his fourth coach (counting interims) and alongside a host of new frontline additions—the 20-year-old Gordon looks poised to blossom from role player into priority. If he can continue to show progress on his corner three and playmaking for others, Gordon has a shot at being the type of versatile, do-everything forward that gives opponents nightmares. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ He is younger entering his third season than when Blake Griffin made his NBA debut
+ He led the Magic with 72 dunks last season, nearly double his next closest teammate
He played the four most of last year, but will likely shift due to Ibaka, Biyombo's arrival
Although he’s made strides at the line (up to 66.8% last year, there’s still work to be done 

Monday September 12th, 2016

Knight's game struggles to satisfy when used in volume. Last season, Knight dropped a career-high 19.6 points per game as he helped to initiate offense for the hapless Suns. Implicit in his role were problems of scale. Putting the ball in Knight’s hands on a full-time basis runs a team headfirst into his limitations: the inconsistency of his mid-range shooting, the rashes of turnovers, the costs of the plays he doesn’t quite see developing. These issues could be quieted were Knight positioned to play a lesser role, though tradeoffs in control offset directly with his production. The very thing that sets him apart—that nice scoring total—is a function of his skill set being pushed beyond its optimal range. Teams could do worse. Knight is very much the kind of worker that brings an atmospheric benefit, to say nothing of the fact that he’ll be 25 years old next season and could plausibly improve. It’s unfortunately worth noting, however, that injuries have cost Knight 49 games over the past two seasons. One month it’s his hip, the next his ankle. There’s the outline of a good player here, but one qualified by periodic unavailability, ordinary defense, and the concessions of volume. (Last year: 78)

+ Creates offense primarily for himself, but isn’t solely a gunner
+ Reasonably effective tough-shot maker despite his shortcomings
High usage rate has yet to translate to team’s offensive success
– 
Seems to have leveled out as a merely solid three-point shooter

Monday September 12th, 2016

Even at 39, Ginobili is the kind of playmaker around whom all seem to flourish. Small, scoring guards are allowed to follow their bliss. Spot shooters find the ball in their hands off of wild, whip passes and quick swings alike. The misdirection running throughout Ginobili’s game makes him all the more effective in setting up rolling bigs a beat earlier or later than the defense might expect. You live with the reckless streaks and the porous defense because he brings a dimension to the game that no other role player can. The step Manu lost along the way changed his game but couldn’t derail it. Still he found the angles to average 17.6 points (on strong shooting percentages), 5.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.1 steals per 36 minutes in his 14th season with the Spurs. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ High-level playmaker capable of running an offense or filling a seamless facilitator
+ Outstanding spot shooter with a counter driving game defenses have to respect
Side effects of his game include: rapid aging and vocal strain on the part of his coach
At a stage in his career where his minutes (and games) need to be carefully monitored

Monday September 12th, 2016

The Cavaliers' title was validation for the much-maligned Smith, whose immaturity on and off the court made him a target for critics over the years. To secure his first ring and become one of the world’s most famous shirtless men, Smith (12.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.7 APG) had to evolve from a streaky freelance scorer early in his career into a narrower 3-and-D role. Playing alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Smith has virtually abandoned his off-the-dribble game, morphing instead into a valuable floor-spacing shooter. While his usage rate, free throw rate, assist rate and dunks all fell to career lows, Smith knocked down a career-high 204 three-pointers at a blistering 40% clip. Defensively, the 31-year-old Smith is still quick enough to put effective pressure defense on the perimeter, and he ramped up his effort level as the Cavaliers closed in on the title. Getting the best out of Smith requires the right circumstances—no bright lights, a veteran-dominated locker room, stars to create clean looks for him—but he proved last season that he could play big, valuable minutes on a team that won it all. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ His +166 raw plus-minus in 21 playoff games trailed only LeBron James (+209)
+ James credits him with an assist on “The Block” because he got back in transition
He has attempted fewer FTs in the last three years combined than he did in 2013
As of press time, he had yet to come to terms on a new contract with the Cavaliers

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

Fournier doesn’t much bother with frivolities like defense or rebounding, but through four NBA seasons he’s carved out a niche as a smooth scorer. The man gets buckets; defenses that lose sight of Fournier for even a moment are likely to get burned by him sliding into an open jumper on the weak side or darting around a screen toward the rim. Slot in Fournier as a complementary scorer and he can fill in the gaps while giving an offense some flourish. Scoring specialists, by type, tend not to be the most judicious with their shot selection. Fournier’s case is helped by the fact that he stands as an exception, both in terms of where he takes his shots and how. The mid-range has never much called to him. Fournier takes 42% of his shots from behind the arc and another 30% at the rim, creating a distribution that buoys his shooting percentages. There’s also enough patience in his game to work around would-be isos and iffy, contested jumpers for better looks. Sixty-four NBA players averaged at least 15 points per game last season. Among them, Fournier ranked ninth in true shooting. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ Excellent three-point shooter and one of the best (41.1%) above the break
+ Racks up points within a role, doesn’t need to deviate to be effective
No-show defender who hasn’t shown much aptitude in coverage
Only a so-so passer, capping the value of his work off the dribble

Monday September 12th, 2016

To be big, mobile, and active goes a long way in the modern NBA. Those underlying qualities alone make Zeller a helpful team defender—quick enough to cover the necessary ground and long enough to contest shots at the rim. Those strengths are mirrored, too, on offense through the speed of Zeller’s rolls and the strength of his finishes. Zeller doesn’t command the ball nor could he do all that much with it if he did. Most of his modest scoring comes by diving through open space and making himself available. Its an endeavor more of persistence than creativity, yet on balance it offers just the kind of dependable, straight-line action that many NBA offenses need. In lieu of the spectacular, Zeller operates fills a predictable lane with solid, two-way play. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ Balanced, unassuming contributor who doesn’t take anything off the table
+ Found his comfort zone as soon as his team gave him the space needed to succeed
After three years in the league, Zeller has yet to show any reliable shooting range
Most comfortable as an NBA player in a limited, tertiary role

Monday September 12th, 2016

The eye test (9.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.8 APG) can lead to all sorts of conflicting conclusions about Mason Plumlee. In the first round of the playoffs against the Clippers, the 26-year-old Duke product was a force, grabbing rebounds by the dozens, dishing assists like a point guard, and going head-to-head with DeAndre Jordan. In the next round against the Warriors, though, Plumlee looked hapless as he struggled mightily to finish around the hoop and was regularly pushed out of the paint. So which is it? On balance, the advanced stats treat Plumlee’s all-around game kindly, as he ranked in the top 70 in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares and Real Plus-Minus last season. Terry Stotts deserves credit for playing to his center’s strengths, turning him loose as a high-post distributor and keeping him out of less efficient post-up isolations. Perhaps the biggest question about Plumlee concerns his ceiling: Can he get much better if he’s not a true one-on-one option, if he’s not a scoring threat outside five feet, and if he grades out as a shaky pick-and-roll defender? (Last year: Not ranked)

+ His 226 assists ranked third among centers behind Pau Gasol and Al Horford
+ His mobility makes him a target in pick-and-roll scenarios and secondary transition
His 18.8 turnover % was the highest among centers who played at least 2,000 minutes
Opponents regularly break out the “Hack-a-Shaq” to exploit his career 58.3 FT% shooting

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

Only Matthews would return from a ruptured Achilles tendon to lead his team in minutes played. His resolve is undeniable. Matthews has forged a career from grit, both in the macro sense as an undrafted player and in the micro sense of working his way through every possession. None of that has changed. Last we saw Matthews, he was doggedly chasing Kevin Durant around the floor, doing all he could to bother a superstar with a seven-inch height advantage. What has changed is the dividends of Matthews’s hard work; try as he might, Matthews could never explode off the dribble or connect on open shots like he did prior to his injury. At his best last season, Matthews was a quality spot shooter and a hard-working defender. That alone isn’t generally enough to rank in the league’s top 100 players. As such, we’re projecting some improvement for Matthews in his second full season back from debilitating injury. To return as quickly as Matthews did shredded all reasonable timetables. To average 34 minutes in 83 total games (between the regular season and playoffs) shattered even optimistic projections. Yet recovering from an Achilles tear—to the extent that one can—takes more time and more rest. This season should mark the return of a more able Matthews, if still one noticeably diminished from his prime years. (Last year: 99)

+ When healthy, Matthews had the balance in his game to make him an ideal complement
+ Utterly relentless
We still don’t quite know how closely Matthews will be able to approximate his prime
Historically, Achilles injuries have not been kind to the careers of NBA players

Monday September 12th, 2016

Biyombo might be a specialist, but he picked the right thing to specialize in. One year after generating limited interest as a free agent, the 2011 lottery pick parlayed a strong postseason run with the Raptors into a four-year, $70 million contract with the Magic. Orlando is paying for elite interior defense: The impossibly long-armed Biyombo (5.5 PPG, 8 RPG, 1.6 BPG) aces the major advanced stats when it comes to protecting the rim, he grades out well as a pick-and-roll defender, and he plays with intensity. As a result, Toronto’s defensive efficiency improved nearly four points when he took the court last season, jumping from No. 23 in 2014-15 to No. 11 last year. Unfortunately, Biyombo, 24, is still a one-way guy: he usually looks uncomfortable with the ball in his hands, he struggles to get his shot in traffic, he’s not a viable option from outside three feet, and he can’t be deployed as a playmaker in pick-and-roll scenarios, meaning his team’s offensive efficiency tends to take a major hit when he’s on the court. As Toronto found out last season though, when he was pressed into a greater role when Jonas Valanciunas was sidelined with injury, BIyombo is just good enough at what he does to make up for what he doesn’t do. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ He ranked No. 8 in the NBA in FG% allowed at the rim last year (via NylonCalculus.com)
+ He grabbed a Raptors franchise-record 26 rebounds in Game 3 of the East finals
According to Real Plus Minus, his offensive impact ranked 63rd among 71 centers
He has registered more than twice as many turnovers as assists in each of his five seasons

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

In case it got lost somewhere between “He looks like Chance the Rapper” and “He started a war between Nike and Under Armour,” Kent Bazemore enjoyed a quality breakout campaign last season. This was a long time coming for the 27-year-old, who went undrafted out of Old Dominion and worked his way up from the D-League and the Summer League circuit to secure a starting role for the Hawks last season. A hyperactive, long two guard, Bazemore (11.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.3 APG) pulled in a four-year, $70 million contract this summer by proving that he could fill the 3-and-D role fairly well. Although he’s not quite a knockdown shooter or a lockdown perimeter defender, Bazemore has the physical tools, athleticism and enough newfound control to serve as a helpful contributor on both ends. His positional versatility on the defensive end, in particular, makes him a valuable piece for the Hawks and the type of guy who would find a way to fit in on just about any contender. Going forward, Bazemore is probably best served by staying in his lane, as his decision-making with the ball can be erratic and much of his offense is generated by Atlanta’s emphasis on ball movement. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ His $15.7 million for 2016-17 is more than 33 times larger what he made in 2012-13
+ Less than 3% of his field-goal attempts came within 10-15 ft. (via basketball-reference)
He rated “Below average” as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last season, per Synergy Sports
 His numbers could take a hit with the losses of skilled passers Jeff Teague and Al Horford

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

Anderson is perhaps the NBA’s purest form of the stretch-four archetype, both in value and complication. Much of his contributions are rooted in where he stands on the floor and how that changes the geometry of an opposing defense. Opponents that elect to guard him closely wind up pulling one of their defenders out of the rotational mix, cinching whatever room for error they might have had. Leave him unattended and Anderson, a career 37.7% three-point shooter, will burn you from the perimeter or spring inside for offensive rebounds. Stationing him on the outside is a simple way to force an opponent into compromise. Defenses, however, have a better understanding than ever of how to manage players like Anderson. Some choose to play off of Anderson and rely on a late close-out, particularly now that his three-point shooting has drifted down from the 39-40% range. Many will task a wing to guard Anderson, particularly when one of his non-shooting teammates can provide a hiding spot for an opposing big. Anderson has a decent enough post game to punish some smaller defenders, but even pulling him into that space—and away from the arc—is a mitigation of his value. Under the best of circumstances, Anderson can still tug at the defense and clear out the lane for his teammates. Under the worst, his offense dwindles to the point that his slow-footed defense eclipses his positive contributions. There’s a delicate balance to Anderson’s game that has never been more difficult to keep at equilibrium. (Last year: No. 72)

+ Put up 20.2 points per 36 minutes last year despite evolution of defense against him
+ Nudges opponents into adjustments that might not always be familiar or comfortable
Value on offense is too often counterbalanced by what he gives up defensively
Has only once in his career played 67 games over a full, 82-game season

Monday September 12th, 2016

Enes Kanter’s basketball biography would be titled, “From Unstoppable To Unplayable (And Back Again).” The 2016 playoffs provided the latest example of Kanter’s vacillating worth: After relentlessly pounding the Spurs in the West semis, the Thunder’s polarizing big man was played off the court by the Warriors in the West finals. Kanter’s story is similar to many other big men who are trying to find a home in the changing NBA game: he’s a terror on the boards and he’s a low-post scoring machine, but his lack of rim-protecting ability and his molasses lateral quickness make him a major liability on the other end. Oklahoma City smartly moved Kanter (12.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG) to the bench last season, where he drew Sixth Man of the Year buzz by having his way with second-unit big men offensively and hiding (to a degree) defensively. The off-season departures of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka will force Billy Donovan to make wholesale changes next season, which could be both good and bad for the 24-year-old Kanter. On the plus side, he should expect more minutes, more shots and more time playing with pick-and-roll partner Russell Westbrook. Unfortunately, though, his funnel-like defense will also be on full display now that Oklahoma City no longer has much protective length. Most likely, the debate over Kanter’s worth will remain unresolved by this time next season, although the volume of discourse could be significantly louder now that more will be asked of him. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ His 16.7 Offensive Rebound Percentage led the NBA last season
+ The Kanter/Westbrok duo posted an excellent off. rating (120) in '16 (via NBAWowy.com)
His -1.50 Defensive Real Plus Minus ranked 50th out of 51 centers
– He looks like he’s ice-skating in a sandbox when he switches defensively onto guards

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

Faried is a bundle of kinetic energy that’s both a chore for opponents to contain and a challenge for his own team to fully harness. His rim running, cutting, and board crashing can define a game. Too often, though, Faried is resigned to the fits and starts that come with being a smallish big of limited ball skills and range. Those working around Faried are restrained by all he cannot do—especially on defense—to the point that his bursts of activity wash against the whole of his minutes on the floor. It’s theoretically possible to find a big who could play the perfect counterpart to Faried: a floor-stretching, shot-blocking, playmaking, full-time center. That counterpart player is also a freaking superstar. For all the value to be gained through Faried’s outstanding transition play and bulk rebounding, it speaks volumes that the conditions for his suitable fit are nothing short of a particular subset of the best players in the league. Faried is fine and flawed in any other case. (Last year: No. 86)

+ Ranked third in offensive rebound rate last season
+ Reasonably effective post player, matchup provided
Crummy defensive instincts lead him to misread rotations
Shot 32.3% on mid-range shots last season and attempted just a single three-pointer

Monday September 12th, 2016

Effective defense needn’t be obvious or demonstrative. Johnson exercises his influence in relative quiet, shuffling through his assignments with balance and awareness. The way that Johnson moves conveys a clear understanding of space and how to navigate it; he always seems to be in the mix, shading this way or that to challenge an offense’s development. Want rim protection? Johnson will lurk behind plays and dart over to alter a layup attempt. Need pressure on the perimeter? Johnson is perfectly comfortable showing on the pick-and-roll and hanging with quicker guards until the defense resets. There’s value, too, in the fact that Johnson knows how to pick his battles. Opponents that don’t demand close coverage don’t get it. Half-hearted screens don’t automatically trigger his help, as Johnson will often guide his teammates through while maintaining good position. It’s always the little things—the box-out angles, the screening persistence, the feel for when his rotation might be needed—that separate Johnson from so many of his peers. The man has a nose for detail. (Last year: No. 89)

+ Allowed a similar % at the rim to blocks leader Hassan Whiteside (per Nylon Calculus)
+ Critical defender on one of the NBA’s top defenses
Little in the way of ball skills; reliant on cuts, rolls, and put-backs to score
Logged just 22.8 MPG last season, with some time ceded to small-ball alternatives

Monday September 12th, 2016

In Year Two, Rodney Hood completely flipped the script from “Boy, he really slid on draft night” to “Boy, a lot of teams regret that he really slid on draft night.” It’s no wonder that teams like the Thunder and Grizzlies are kicking themselves for passing on Hood (14.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.7 APG), who went to the Jazz at No. 23 in 2014. There’s a lot to love about Hood’s game: he can play with or without the ball, he can initiate in pick-and-roll settings or space on the wing, he can read team defenses and find the open man, he can swing multiple positions on both offense and defense, and he can handle playing starter minutes in the West even though he’s only 23. Meanwhile, Hood did all of that while playing on a Jazz team that had brutal point guard play and a laundry list of major injuries. There’s no telling how high his utility might climb if he was cast as a third or fourth option behind established superstars, or if Utah’s core group can make it through an entire season together unscathed. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ His 8.1 career Win Shares rank No. 1 among 2014 draft class members.
+ Hood, a lefty, studied James Harden to hone his deliberate style in high pick-and-rolls
He's a mediocre defender for his position, with room to improve
He can grow as a closer, shooting just 40% overall (and 24.2 3P%) in clutch situations

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

NBA history tells us that 20- and 21-year-olds are not meant to be impact defenders. Their spectacular plays are generally overwhelmed by their physical and mental shortcomings. It’s a testament to the singularity of Noel that he’s now made our list over the past two seasons in spite of that. So rare is his defensive profile that it begs exception; his steal rate in each of his first two seasons ranks among the best of all time for a big, and only truly elite company (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson) matched his output in terms of blocks and steals. It was only with Noel on the floor that the Sixers, lacking as they were, came anywhere close to defensive respectability. To get all of this from a player still feeling his way through team defensive concepts is stunning. Noel isn’t in the Top 100 because he gets every nuance just right. He’s included—and ranked this favorably—because of all that he’s able to offer in spite of his mistakes. (Last year: No. 97)

+ Up to 52.1% shooting from the field last season
+ One of the brightest defensive prospects in the league
Among the worst in the league in true turnover percentage (per Nylon Calculus)
Still very lean; movable on hard drives, box outs, and post-ups

Monday September 12th, 2016

On a minute-by-minute basis, Andrew Bogut remains in the “NBA’s best defensive player” conversation: he blocks shots, contests shots, dissuades drives, handles pick-and-rolls, understands tendencies, cleans the defensive glass, and uses his fouls as well as anybody in the league. Unfortunately for Bogut, there’s no “Turn off injuries” button in real life like there is in “NBA 2K.” As a result, his superb defensive work and his entertaining playmaking from the high post get hit with big asterisks. Even last season, when he appeared in 70 games for Golden State primarily as a starter, Bogut logged fewer total minutes than numerous backup centers. The combination of an off-season trade to Dallas, a thin frontline surrounding him, and a contract that expires next summer sets up Bogut for a solid showcase year in 2016-17. The looming question, though, is whether the 31-year-old Bogut has enough left in the tank to expand out of the intentionally limited role he filled with the Warriors. (Last year: No. 76)

+ He led the entire NBA in Defensive Real Plus Minus (+5.45) this season
+ He averaged four assists per 36 minutes last season, ranking second among 7-footers
He has averaged 1,191 minutes per year (roughly 14.5 MPG over all 82 games) for the last five seasons 
Coming off season-ending knee injury in Finals, but played for Australia at the Rio Olympics

Monday September 12th, 2016

There’s a delicious contrast to be found between Robin Lopez’s zany interests and the eminently overlooked nature of his game. By day, Lopez is a Star Wars superfan, comic book freak and Disney addict who dives into his passions as deeply as can be, often joining hundreds of like-minded devotees in mass celebration. By night, Lopez sets screens, dives hard to the hoop, flings in clunky hook shots, crashes the offensive glass, protects the basket area, and diligently boxes out—all of the underappreciated and forgettable things that ensure his more recognizable teammates can get their numbers and his teams can win a few more games. He’s rarely been a player of note on the NBA’s postseason stage, and even his new coach, Fred Hoiberg, accidentally called him “Brook” (his more decorated twin brother’s name) during a press conference this summer. Truthfully, man NBA fans probably knows him better as “The guy with the weird hair that fights with mascots” more than anything that has to do with his actual job description. Even so, Lopez is a very fine all-around center who can be a positive contributor on both sides of the ball if the personnel around him plays to his strengths and helps cover up his weaknesses. (Last year: No. 84)

+ Fared better than Derrick Rose in PER, Win Shares and Real Plus Minus in 2015-16
+ His 45.5 FG% allowed at the rim ranked in the top 10 among bigs (per NylonCalculus.com)
– His lack of mobility and lateral quickness limits him on the defensive end
 Has a tendency to clog the paint, which could prove especially problematic in Chicago

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

The basketball world has a way of glossing over the Trevor Arizas—those players who fill a specific role on offense and take on thankless defensive assignments in a huge portion of minutes. Any superstar would have his life made easier by having Ariza around to anchor the rotation. Nearly 3,000 regular season minutes would be filled with strong perimeter shooting and versatile defense. Drives to the hoop are made easier by the fact that Ariza shoots 42.1% from the corners. New lineup possibilities are created by his willingness to wrestle with bigger opponents at the 4. Ariza isn’t quite as athletic as he once was, but through length and persistence alone he makes for a solid defender across three positions. Any healthy team ecosystem needs contributors like him in order to function fully. (Last year: No. 65)

+ Has abandoned delusions of grandeur in favor of a more controlled, efficient game
+ Excellent at using length to generate turnovers
Useful as a stretch–four but can be pushed around and worked over on the glass
Declining speed makes him less viable against quicker guards

Monday September 12th, 2016

Rudy Gay and the Kings have arguably brought out the worst in each other. Gay has more or less stuck to his inefficient, isolation-heavy offense and laissez faire defense, while Sacramento has done him no favors by constantly cycling through GMs, coaches and point guards instead of constructing an on-court setup that might make better use of his physical gifts. Along the way, Gay (17.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.7 APG) has passed age 30, made slight improvement on his poor shot selection diet, and publicly expressed confusion with the Kings’ organizational direction. While Gay in Sacramento feels a bit doomed, there’s still a nagging sensation that he could be a salvageable asset in the right scenario. Couldn’t Gay age more gracefully and effectively if cast in a smaller and supporting offensive role and placed in a winning environment that would push him to play defense and help provide some cover from scrutiny and individual expectations? (Last year: No. 52)

+ Touches fell with Rajon Rondo's arrival, suggesting he’s a candidate to bounce back
+ Gay says he “feel[s] better than I have in at least two years" after off-season Achilles surgery
Ranks outside the top 100 players league-wide in PER, Win Shares and Real Plus Minus
He’s won three playoff games total during his 10-year career

Monday September 12th, 2016

At just 22, Capela has the profile of an emerging two-way force. Last season he was a per-minute wonder for the Rockets, churning out 13.3 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, and 1.4 steals over 36. Some of that production is bound to wither as his minutes scale up. What’s likely to remain is still a valuable, important player—particularly within the context of what a modern center is asked to do. Capela has shown no interest in calling for the ball in the post. He screens and he rolls, over and over, to keep the offense flowing. When the ball comes his way, Capela has the hands to make catches on the move and finish strong at the rim. When it doesn’t, he stays active with cuts and pursues potential rebounds. All of this from a big with real defensive promise. At minimum, Capela is a big-time rebounder and capable finisher who will bring energy to a defense. That’s a hell of a place to start. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ Quick, lanky shot-blocker who can wreak havoc through activity.
+ Committed rebounder who punishes opponents for failing to box him out.
– Strictly a catch-and-finish player. Doesn’t yet have the footwork or ball skills to do much else on the move.
Slight enough that he gets pushed around by opposing centers.

Monday September 12th, 2016

The breakout surprise of last year’s rookie class is a Gasolian assist factory. Already an offense can go a long way by putting the ball in Jokic’s hands and swirling around him; the 21-year-old keeps one eye trained to the backdoor at all times, even as he gauges the timing and progression of a play’s primary option. If nothing materializes, Jokic can face up into an open jumper or back his man down for a soft hook shot. Any big with this robust a skill set opens up new angles and strategies for his team to explore. So much is on the table for Jokic—post, roll, facilitate, spot up, dive in for rebounds—that most any form of usage makes sense. Beginning a career with that full scope of possibility makes Jokic one of the more variable players on this list. Some of what holds him back in ranking relative to his peers is the fact that opposing defenses have yet to hone in specifically on his game. Jokic earned his place in the scouting report and now he’ll be forced to reckon with it, as all young players do, before settling his place in the league hierarchy. This ranking reflects our optimism for how he’ll deal with more advanced scrutiny. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ Solid enough defender at both big positions
+ Ended season on-par with Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan in offensive rebounding rate
Limited experience; averaged just 21.7 minutes per game in his lone NBA season
– Hasn’t yet encountered much specific, high-level scheming at even a regular season level

Monday September 12th, 2016

Orlando’s decision to dump Tobias Harris, now 24, to Detroit for next to nothing in return last February remains one of the biggest head-scratchers of 2016. Harris (16.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.6 APG after the trade) is well on his way to becoming a quality stretch forward: he has a little pop to his individual offensive game without hijacking the show, he has the makings of a quality catch-and-shoot option to complement Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, and he should be able to get by on the boards as the NBA continues to downsize. Yes, Harris is probably destined to be a liability on the defensive end, even as he gets closer to his prime, but that’s not necessarily a death sentence for stretch players with his less-than-overwhelming build. Although he’s about to enter his sixth season, Harris still has some unscratched breakout potential: so much of his career was spent playing for teams going nowhere and for coaches that never established the offensive structure to put him in position for success. So far, Detroit has looked like a much better fit. (Last year: No. 78)

+ Detroit’s offensive efficiency improved from 105.5 to 108.9 upon his arrival (per NBAWowy.com)
+ Harris showed potential to be an excellent spot-up shooter with the Pistons  
Detroit’s defensive efficiency slipped from 104.6 to 108.6 upon his arrival (per NBAWowy.com)
His tweener status bites him on both ends of pick-and-roll defense scenarios

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

Mahinmi grew up in the NBA as a project player—big, raw, energetic, and foul-prone. Defense gave him a niche to excuse his lack of ball skills and slot him into a particular, finite role. Then, in a single season at age 29, Mahinmi transformed from a one-dimensional specialist into a surprisingly capable two-way player. It was as if Mahinmi had struck an oddly humble deal at a crossroads: his soul to take for the sudden ability to execute fluid pick-and-rolls at a professional level. No more was Mahinmi fumbling or fouling his way to the rim. Most Pacers games would feature some play—a read and pass on the move, some smooth footwork into a coordinated finish—that was clearly beyond the old Mahinmi of old. These sequences were too technical and too regular to be flukes. This is apparently who Mahinmi is now. The new iteration of Mahinmi is both a player capable of steadying one of the top defenses in the league and helping an offense nudge an offense along. Even a somewhat balanced center is a player of considerable value. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ Surprisingly effective on hook shots and flip shots in the high paint
+ One of the better defensive centers in the league (finished No. 5 in DRPM)
Little in the way of post-up skills. Mid-range jumper too erratic to be reliable
Still gets into foul trouble more often than you’d like for a starting center

Monday September 12th, 2016

Vucevic put up big numbers in back-to-back seasons for the Magic, but knock on his stat line and it rings a bit hollow. There’s only so much value to his 18.2 points per game when it results in one of the league’s lesser offenses. Obviously Vucevic isn’t solely to blame for all that held back Orlando’s offense last season, though the fact that his high usage and notable production didn’t elevate the Magic speaks to a certain caveat. Still Vucevic deserves credit for making the most of compromised spacing. Every roll to the rim and post-up he’s made has been crowded and pressured by a defense that edged in from the Magic’s non-threats at the three-point line. Vucevic has produced in spite of that and even added some spacing himself by connecting on 46% of his 7.6 mid-range jumpers per game. There is no question that Vucevic can produce when given opportunity. What’s less reliable are the returns on that investment on the team level and his ability to offset his lacking rotational defense. (Last year: No. 67)

+ Scorer in bulk who can sop up usage and churn out buckets
+ Decent passer even in a complicated setting
Defense remains a glaring problem. Unlikely to contribute to an elite defense.
Has yet to contribute to a winning offense (or even an average one)

Monday September 12th, 2016

It’s pretty easy to bet on a breakthrough year for Victor Oladipo, who was dealt by the Magic to the Thunder in the Serge Ibaka trade. For starters, the Magic’s recent track record of getting the most of their prospects is not great. More importantly, though, the 24-year-old Oladipo will take the court next to a legit superstar (Russell Westbrook) for the first time in his career, and will leave behind a host of floor-cramping players in Orlando who no doubt contributed to his suboptimal offensive efficiency. In the three years since he was selected at No. 2 in the 2013 draft, Oladipo has shown himself to be a good (but not great) scorer, an intriguing pick-and-roll playmaker, a shaky outside shooter and a plus defender whose athletic tools suggest he could take a step forward. Oladipo’s arrival in Oklahoma City sets him up nicely for what could be a massive payday as a restricted free agent next summer. While Oladipo’s ongoing development won’t heal the wounds left by Kevin Durant’s departure, it will be a key determining factor in whether the Thunder can make it work with their new core or whether a true rebuilding effort is required. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ His age-23 production from last season (16/5/4, 4.9 Win Shares) is in the same ballpark as Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker's
+ Ranked in the top 90 in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares and Real Plus Minus
He shot just 33.8% overall and 26.9% from deep while registering more turnovers than assists in clutch situations last season.
He has never played for a top–20 offense

Monday September 12th, 2016

Let’s go ahead and give DeMarre Carroll a mulligan. Last season was the nightmare after the dream: The good vibes from his 2014–15 career year in Atlanta and the expectations that built with his cash-out contract with Toronto came crashing down thanks to a season-altering knee injury. The 30-year-old Carroll (11 PPG, 4.7 RPG) appeared in just 26 games and missed three solid months before rushing back for the playoffs. That was no way to build chemistry and trust with the Raptors’ existing core. While Carroll was gone, however, his basic skill-set only got more valuable. A complementary offensive option who plays to his strengths (outside shooting, cutting) and knows his role, Carroll can handle multiple positions on the defensive end and relishes the dirty work. Assuming he’s back to full health, Carroll should have every opportunity to reestablish himself with the Raptors. (Last year: No. 81)

+ Still grades out as an “Excellent” spot-up shooter (per Synergy Sports)
+ Although he wasn't 100% healthy, he helped Toronto make the East finals for the first time in franchise history
– Toronto’s best playoff-ready lineup might feature Carroll, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Cory Joseph and Valanciunas. That group logged just 36 minutes together last year.
– After a career year in 2014–15, he placed outside the top 100 in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares and Real Plus Minus last season

Monday September 12th, 2016

The world simply needs more combo guards like Bradley. Offensively, Boston’s 6'2" shooting guard has developed into a solid floor-spacing spot-up shooter and has honed an opportunistic and crafty off-ball cutting game that keeps defenders honest. Defensively, Bradley is a tone-setter who can flip seamlessly between guard positions: his aggressive on-ball style, quick hands and tireless approach helped drive the Celtics to a top-five defensive efficiency rating. Even better, Bradley (15.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.1 APG) avoids most of the bad habits usually associated with combo guards: he doesn’t pound the air out of the ball, he doesn’t force plays that aren’t there and he is rarely exposed to defensive mismatches. Bradley, 25, has his faults—he’s not a natural distributor, he isn’t equipped to run an offense for long stretches and his lack of size prevents him from making a big impact on the glass, but he tends to err on the side of control. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ Made and attempted more threes last season (147 for 407) than he did his first four seasons combined.
+ One of four players among the top 20 in steals to register more steals than turnovers
Injury issues have been a recurring theme throughout his career
 His limitations make him reliant on his teammates to generate much of his offense

Monday September 12th, 2016

Rubio is a first-class player in two crucial regards (playmaking, perimeter defense) and sorely lacking in another (scoring). Where that leaves his overall game is a matter of disagreement. Rubio characterizes such an extreme in both regards that his contributions can only be fully understood within an actual team context. That’s just not possible for the purposes of this exercise. Some theoretical teams would be able to give Rubio the kind of shooting support he needs while others would wither beneath his inaccuracy and reluctance. That variability is enough to depress his value this far, couching Rubio among players who have fewer (or no) transcendent NBA skills. His passing and ball-hawking defense are too remarkable to push further. Both stem from the same supernatural timing – a sense that allows Rubio to pick off passes with ease before threading a no-look, behind-the-back feed between two defenders. Some of his passes require multiple viewings at varying speed and angles to fully appreciate. It’s flash as function, and in each case proof that Rubio is so far ahead of the defense that he can toy easily with the space around them. (Last year: No. 87)

+ Tied for first in steal percentage and finished No. 2 in total offensive fouls drawn last year
+ Last season was actually an up year for Rubio as both a three-point shooter (32.6%) and an interior finisher (50.8%) 
Poor shooting would be impossible to hide from playoff scrutiny
Largely healthy last season but no stranger to nagging injury

Monday September 12th, 2016

A pair of surgeries—one to his ankle, another to his shooting elbow—completely derailed Korver’s 2015-16 season. It took months for his game (and shooting percentages) to course correct, and from that dry spell came Korver’s worst season three-point shooting percentage since 2009. That is not to be overlooked; even a drop into the low-40s in three-point percentage would be notable for Korver considering the lofty range where he usually lives. That specialty is the core of his game. Defenses may choose to guard him the same based on capability and reputation, but central to Korver’s appeal is the capacity to make opponents pay. When he’s unable to do that—as was the case in December and January last season—Korver fades into the background of games. Korver showed over the final months of the season that he can still do enough of that to be effective, though a 35-year-old coming off a season marred by injury deserves some mild pessimism. (Last year: No. 46)

+ Forces opponents to change their game plans to account for his presence
+ Changes the game without the ball, allowing teammates to register their own influence
A nondescript defender at best, an exploitable one at worst
– Clearly on the decline of his career

Monday September 12th, 2016

For four straight seasons, Danny Green was one of the NBA’s most reliable and cold-blooded three-point shooting specialists. And then it all came crashing down last year, as the Spurs’ not-so-sharpshooter hit just 33.2% of his threes, more than 7% below his career average and nearly nine points below his 2014–15 work. So many things are strange about this: Green didn’t change teams, his team didn’t change offensive systems, he didn’t change his role, he didn’t suffer a crippling injury or age-related decline and his shot location distribution was almost identical compared to the previous year. Strangest of all, his blatant shooting slump didn’t impact his team’s success all that much: the Spurs won 67 games, ranked third in offensive efficiency and posted a 111.1 offensive rating when he was on the court, bricks and all. These circumstances made it extraordinarily difficult to rank Green on this list. Is he a once-lethal, now-broken weapon, or is he poised to recover from his anomalous nightmare? This much is clearer: Green remains one of the NBA’s top perimeter guards, and his ability to defend either guard position is especially valuable and transferrable to various team contexts. (Last year: No. 50)

+ He ranked No. 1 in Defensive Real Plus Minus among shooting guards
+ Per NBA.com, his 3.5 deflections per game during the 2016 playoffs ranked No. 3 overall
– Per Synergy Sports, he fell from the 93rd percentile (1.19 points per possession) in spot-up shooting in 2014–15 to the 53rd percentile (0.95 points per possession) in 2015–16
– His 49.2 True Shooting % last season was the second-lowest mark among players who took 300 threes, topping only Kobe (46.9 TS%).

Monday September 12th, 2016

Casual gawkers and hardcore stat nerds alike could agree that the 20-year-old Latvian was awesome last season. By the end of his rookie campaign, the nonstop hype over this rail thin, 7' 3" big man (who didn’t turn 21 until August) was fully validated: Porzingis (14.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.9 BPG) survived the absolutely brutal one-two coaching duo of Derek Fisher and Kurt Rambis to claim Rookie of the Year runner-up and All-Rookie honors. Although his efficiency tailed off a bit down the stretch, 2016’s No. 4 pick enjoyed strong advanced stats across the board thanks to his developed offensive arsenal and mesmerizing size and wingspan, which helped him rebound well for his age and rank in the top 10 league-wide in blocked shots. On paper, Porzingis’s profile—a stretch-five who is comfortable scoring from the block to the arc and who can protect the rim—is as enticing as it gets. His short-term development path will be fascinating to watch, as the Knicks made the curious decision to surround Porzingis and All-Star Carmelo Anthony with a roster full of high-usage and injury-plagued veterans rather than pursuing a youth movement. Porzingis needed more help, to be sure, but he also needs an environment where he can play through his mistakes (dumb fouls, turnovers), work on his correctable weaknesses (spot-up shooting, finishing through traffic around the basket, playmaking for others), and master his strengths (natural scoring ability, shot creation). Given the large body of work he established in logging more than 2,000 minutes as a rookie, anything short of a big step forward from Porzingis in Year 2 would reflect poorly on Knicks president Phil Jackson. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ Made 81 three-pointers and attempted 243, setting all-time NBA records for players listed at 7' 3" or taller
+ Rookie stats (14 pts/7 reb/2 blk, 17.7 PER) similar to Brook Lopez's (13 pts/8 reb/2 blk, 17.7 PER)
– Shot just 34.5% and was a team-worst minus-54 in 84 minutes worth of clutch situations
– His 0.77 assist-to-turnover ratio as a rookie was comparable to less skilled big men like Rudy Gobert (.80) and Alex Len (0.67)

Monday September 12th, 2016

Wiggins might as well wear a target on his back. Through two seasons, the highly-touted 2014 No. 1 pick has given critics plenty of juicy nit-picking material: His Timberwolves have been bad, he’s emerged as a bit of an inefficient gunner, he’s not a particularly good rebounder despite his remarkable physical tools, he’s shown limited ability as a playmaker for others and he’s not yet a lockdown defender. Patience is still in order. Indeed, Wiggins (20.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2 APG), who just turned 21 in February, has yet to play for a coach with a modern approach to offense or with a cast of teammates who are all pulling in the same direction. Despite those challenges, he’s proven himself to be a reliable night-to-night scorer, a go-to option in the post, a skilled drawer of fouls, and an extremely durable player given his high-usage role and heavy minutes burden. The next steps are straightforward: cut down on the long twos, improve as a catch-and-shoot option from outside, take a step forward as a distributor in pick-and-roll scenarios and gobble up every piece of defensive advice new coach Tom Thibodeau has to offer. Given how high Wiggins’s talent level remains high relative to his age group and how lost the Timberwolves were when he arrived two years ago, it would be foolish to believe that his current flaws are bound to endure. (Last year: No. 91)

+ Logged more minutes before his age-21 season (5,814) than every player in NBA history besides LeBron James (per Basketball-reference.com)
+ He’s one of only five under-21 players in the last decade to average 20+ PPG for a season
 His sky-high ratio of shots to assists is Rudy Gay-esque
He’s yet to fulfill pre-draft expectations that he would be a plus defender

Monday September 12th, 2016

Young is a no-frills contributor who racks up points without any trappings of a prominent role. Very few plays are run with him in mind—even on a Brooklyn Nets team otherwise lacking in creators. Still Young would turn up 15.1 points per game by knowing just how to take best advantage of random basketball. Some players can work wonders with the ball in their hands. Young does the same by wedging his way into slight openings, scooping up offensive rebounds, and flipping in baskets. Teams like the Pacers value Young because he can work in the space between ball-dominant teammates to turn difficult, unplanned shots into consistent points. Even the most skilled players in the league can run into trouble relying on the kinds of floaters and half-hooks that make for Young’s regular diet. Young shot 52% last season on shots in the high paint, a space on the floor characterized by difficult, off-balance attempts. Somehow, he makes it work.  (Last year: No. 75)

+ Solid rebounder who is particularly elusive on the offensive glass
+ Has a knack for turning up steals. Knows how to use his hands on defense
Doesn’t have much of a go-to game, but doesn't need big role to thrive
Young’s days experimenting with a three-point shot appear to be over

Monday September 12th, 2016

Williams found a career-altering niche with the Hornets as a power forward who can stretch the floor and attack an overextended defense. The latter is critical; too many jump-shooting power forwards are rendered ineffective by committed coverage and hard closeouts. Williams made it a point to work on his floor game—if only for those particular moments when a defender might scramble past him in an effort to contest his shot. Defenders would have good reason to react in such exaggerated fashion. Not only did Williams finish as one of the top 15 three-point shooters in the league last season by percentage, he made 44.9% of his threes from the corners. Considering that more than half of his field goal attempts overall are now threes, Williams has earned that overcommittment. The counters are a burgeoning part of Williams’s game, though his perimeter shooting and always solid defense provide a stable core. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ An exceptionally low-turnover player—barely makes any mistakes
+ Defensive versatility makes him a legitimate option guarding both forward spots
Positional shift has exacerbated his mediocre rebounding
Best suited as a complement. Offensive game couldn’t comfortably scale into any other role

Monday September 12th, 2016

Randolph, after 15 years in the league, is bullying a new wave of slighter, smaller power forwards. His rump does the heavy lifting; tough as it is to push back against Randolph’s post-ups or contest his long-armed hook shots, such tasks are that much harder when Randolph first bumps away defenders off his backside. Sophisticated, preemptive team defenses make it more challenging every year for players to operate from the post. Yet Randolph comes back, season after season, with the fakes and footwork he needs to get by. There’s room, still, for Randolph’s particular brand of mid-usage bullyball. (Last year: No. 49)

+ Remains a solid mid-range shooter, shooting 43.1% last season
+ A load of a rebounder. Opponents advised to use heavy machinery, tow cables, etc.
Slow-footed defender who doesn’t much protect the rim
Face-up game is in decline now that his jab step is something of an empty threat

Monday September 12th, 2016

A change of scenery didn’t produce a change in narrative for Greg Monroe (15.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG). The 6'11" center moved from Detroit to Milwaukee as a free agent last summer, only to keep stacking up double-doubles, suffering through countless losses and enduring questions about his defensive shortcomings in a new location. The essential dilemma is this: if Monroe, 26, isn’t quick and mobile enough to defend starting power forwards (he’s not) and he isn’t blessed with the rim-protecting skills and low-post defensive fundamentals to defend starting centers (he’s not), then how can he contribute to a winning enterprise? The best solution is likely to move him permanently to a super sub role, where he can crash the offensive glass and punish backups on offense while skating by as best he can on defense. That might feel like an overly harsh demotion for a player who has consistently averaged roughly 17/10 per 36 minute for five straight seasons, but the low post-centric, one-way nature of his game cuts against the prevailing winds of the modern NBA. Monroe’s game isn’t trendy, and it isn’t likely to change radically given his limited range and physical limitations, so something else will have to give. (Last year: No. 48)

+ Only two players (Jordan, Drummond) have collected more offensive rebounds since 2011
+ He has appeared in 96% of his team’s games during his career, missing just 19 games in six years
Detroit posted better efficiency numbers and won 12 more games without him
In six seasons, he’s never played for a team that’s won more than 33 games

Monday September 12th, 2016

Jonas Valanciunas is so polished and so effective offensively that there’s been a bubbling sense for a year or two now that he should be further along than he is. The breakthrough didn’t happen last season, as a hand injury combined with a strong contract year from defensive-minded backup Bismack Biyombo suppressed his playing time and overall output (12.8 PPG, 9.1 RPG). At 24, though, there’s enough evidence to suggest that giving up now would be a mistake, especially with Biyombo out of the picture and Toronto’s roster wholly lacking in experienced back-up centers. Valanciunas is a scoring factory around the basket, feasting on close-range shots he creates with his bulk, second-chance opportunities he generates by pounding the glass and free throws he earns by being too much to handle for non-traditional centers. Toronto’s offense ranked in the top five last year so it’s hardly broken, but the timing seems right to feature Valanciunas in greater doses. While Valanciunas must take a step forward as a rim-protector and in pick-and-roll situations, Toronto’s thin frontcourt rotation suggests that this year will be sink-or-swim time for the Lithuanian 7-footer. (Last year: No. 77)

+ Feed him! Per NBA.com, he shot 68.1% on attempts that originated from a post touch last season
+ He’s almost certainly the NBA’s most committed and elaborate pump-faker
The best recent age-23 comparison points for his production last season (13/9, 6.9 Win Shares) are a somewhat uninspiring mixed bag: Greg Monroe (15/9, 5.9 WS), Kenneth Faried (12/9, 7.8 WS), Andrew Bynum (11/9, 6.6 WS) and Chris Kaman (12/10, 6.1 WS).
 Through four seasons, he’s averaged one assist per every 41 minutes of playing time. He’s also never registered more than three assists in a regular-season game. 

Monday September 12th, 2016

The particular construction of last season’s Miami Heat team was never all that kind to Dragic. His optimal role demands freedom with the ball in his hands. Sharing creative responsibility with Dwyane Wade sometimes made it difficult for Dragic to get the ball. In crunch time, Dragic was relegated to spot shooting or cheering from the sidelines—both similarly ineffective uses of the primary ball handler. When given that benefit, Dragic can produce more. He can only snake his way to the rim and collapse defenses if he’s empowered to take the ball off the bounce and run an offense for himself. Grant Dragic that much, however, and it also becomes clear that his breakout season in Phoenix was a bit of a mirage. Dragic isn’t shooting that well (40.8%), exploding to the rim that effectively, or propelling an offense so single-handedly again. Dragic is a lesser player now than he was then—clever enough to still be relatively effective, but slowed a touch and outpaced by many of his positional peers. (Last year: No. 42)

+ Still a smart, varied finisher who tests the discipline of opposing bigs​
+ Has enough changes in speed and direction to his game to shed some defenders on the perimeter
Technically can guard both backcourt positions but isn’t all that effective defending either
Neither a prolific playmaker nor a top scoring guard

Monday September 12th, 2016

The power forward’s evolution in the modern NBA has made the position a safe haven for aging wings like Deng. Realistically, there are only so many big-bodied fours who could really give Deng trouble. The rest are right in his range: largely perimeter oriented but a step slower than the shooting guards and small forwards Deng checked for the bulk of his career. His positional shift last season in Miami worked to extend his career. Teams know what they can expect from Deng. Every defensive possession—even those that are ultimately fruitless—will be hard-fought. Every offensive task will be executed cleanly. There are clear limits to what Deng can do at this stage, though the reliability he brings to a system is an asset in itself. (Last year: No. 56)

+ Serviceable three-point shooter from the corners, though he seems to favor the right.
+ Consummate professional whom teammates praise and coaches trust.
Plenty of wear, minutes and injury in his 12-year career.
No longer a top-tier wing defender, though he gets by on savvy and effort.

Monday September 12th, 2016

There’s no problem at all if J.J. Redick, 32, never has another season as good as his 2015–16 campaign. He was just that good last season, scoring 16.3 points, shooting a league-leading 47.5% from deep, posting a whopping 114 offensive rating per NBAWowy.com and dropping a career-high 17.5 Player Efficiency Rating. L.A. got by for long stretches of the season without All-Star forward Blake Griffin in large part because Redick was the most finely tuned version of his lethal catch-and-shoot self. Thanks to years of backcourt chemistry between Redick and Chris Paul, the Clippers boasted the NBA’s sixth-best offense even though Griffin, a 20/10 monster, barely played after Christmas. Although a vast majority of Redick’s offensive value requires his teammates’ involvement, via timely passes and diligent screens, he’s such a pure and practiced shooter that he could function effectively for virtually any coach and point guard who bothered to call his number repeatedly. What’s more, Redick should probably get a little more 3-and-D love than he does, given that the Clippers’ defensive rating slipped three points when he left the court last season and he grades out respectably by Synergy’s analysis. While Redick isn’t going to shatter any backboards or posterize many seven-footers, his precision offensive contributions, defensive effort and overall veteran stability were worthy of a good jump up SI’s Top 100 rankings this year. (Last year: No. 93)

+ His 596 points in catch-and-shoot situations ranked third in the NBA. His eye-popping 1.52 PPP in spot-up scenarios ranked in the 100th percentile, per Synergy Sports
+ His 47.5% three-point shooting last season was the second-best mark in NBA history for any player taking at least five attempts
He’s averaged one block shot for every 384 minutes he’s played during his 10-year career
Is this the last go-around in LA? He will be 33 when he hits free agency next July

Monday September 12th, 2016

For as promising as Beal’s skill-set might be, there’s just no way around the fact that he’s missed a quarter of his career games due to injury. Some seem to be the result of cumulative strain, others the stroke of bad luck. In all they’ve cost Beal and the Wizards quite a bit—including some invaluable developmental opportunity during Beal’s first four seasons. Projecting forward, the likelihood of Beal missing further games has to be priced into his ranking relative to other high-level players. The Beal who does make it to the floor is a nice shooter and competitive defender who hasn’t fully fleshed out his game. Credit is due for the way that Beal can manufacture points out of difficult situations; his off-the-dribble game can redeem a broken play or carve out an opening against tight pressure, both of which are inevitabilities for a competitive team going through a playoff gauntlet. It’s players like Beal who help a team survive. It’s players like Beal, too, who can complicate matters by pulling up for iffy jumpers when they should drive to the rim, create contact, or aim to set up a teammate. (Last year: No. 62)

+ Stellar perimeter shooter with some ability to create his own offense
+ Came into the league so young that he’s still just 23 after four years of experience
Competitive defender but hardly a game-changer on that end.
Shot selection can leave something to be desired. Prone to settling.

Monday September 12th, 2016

It’s hard not to chuckle when an established player says that being traded is the “Best news I’ve heard in years.” That was Jeff Teague’s reaction when he learned his seven-years Hawks tenure was coming to an end and that he would play out his 2016-17 contract year with his hometown Pacers. There were plenty of reasons for possible discontent: Teague (15.7 PPG, 5.9 APG) was in a battle for minutes (and future dollars) with back-up Dennis Schroder, his overall efficiency and production were off last season, the Hawks took a major step back in the standings, and the team’s offense wasn’t nearly as potent as it was during their dream 2014-15 run to the East finals. This is clean slate time for the 28-year-old Teague, a 2015 All-Star whose elite quickness and strong pick-and-roll game helped him oversee some very good offenses during his time in Atlanta. An improved outside shooter, Teague is nevertheless used to a loose leash and the ball in his hands. Priority one in Indiana will therefore be striking the right balance between running Indiana’s show himself and making sure Paul George is satisfied with his touches. The good news: Indiana hasn’t had an above-average offense since 2012, so the door is wide open for Teague to prove he’s worth a major investment next summer. (Last year: No. 41)

+ Ranked in the top four league-wide in total drives in each of the last three years
+ Shot a career-best 40% from deep last season (graded out 98th percentile in catch-and-shoot, per Synergy Sports)
Claimed to have played through a torn tendon in his knee on an Instagram post that was later deleted.
Fell from 7th among point guards in Defensive Real Plus Minus in 2014-15 to outside the top 50

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

Hill's natural inclination is to complement—effectively deferring to his playmaking teammates by helping to establish the spacing they need to thrive. Only 12 players in the league last season finished with a higher three-point percentage than Hill. Among them, only two (Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson) have any claim to being a superior defender. That makes Hill a top option within the 3-and-D mold and truly unique in that he defaults as a nominal point guard. Wing players who want the ball in their hands need a teammate like Hill alongside them to be effective in unassuming roles. Don’t confuse Hill’s default preference for inability. When put into situations where his individual creation was needed, Hill has swelled to fill the void. He’s a smart, balanced practitioner of the screen-and-roll with the experience to run an offense. He also just happens to be perfectly willing to take a backseat while another teammate drives or pick up a challenging assignment to save someone else the trouble. Hill is game for whatever, and his open-minded play only serves to broaden his team’s options. (Last year: No. 80).

+ Previously held up well as a higher-usage pick-and-roll option in the absence of a star
+ Tall and long enough to realistically defend across three positions
Can easily fade into the background on teams that don’t move the ball consistently
– Intermediate game can be a touch erratic

Monday September 12th, 2016

Gortat rates as a solid finisher, interior defender, roll man, rebounder, screener and even post scorer which at a position short on balance makes him one of the more preferable options out there. Breadth of skill matters; so many teams get into trouble because their defensive bigs can’t convert around the rim or their scoring bigs don’t understand defensive positioning. Living in the middle eliminates the liability from Gortat’s game, making him all the more viable across team contexts. If Gortat has any standout skill, it’s his ability to make himself available. Gortat is a big target who keeps his hands high. Last season, he led the league in paint touches in part because his Wizards teammates knew he would work his way through the obvious openings on the floor and be prepared for any catch. Patience, too, bolsters Gortat’s efficiency. He has great touch on layups and hooks but is careful to keep balanced and avoid lunging toward the rim without a clear plan of attack. It all works. Gortat is often overshadowed as the endpoint of a John Wall assist or merely a component of a defensive stand—even in cases where his presence was instrumental to a play’s success. (Last year: No. 63)

+ A top-20 rebounder by percentage, better than DeMarcus Cousins
+ Well-versed in the timing and angles of the pick-and-roll game
Can contribute to a strong defense but isn’t quite mobile or instinctive enough to carry one
– Production could take a step back with the arrival of Ian Mahinmi

Monday September 12th, 2016

No matter what he accomplishes, the focus usually centers on the things Reggie Jackson doesn’t do rather than the things he does. Unfortunately for Jackson (18.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG), there’s a lot of things he doesn’t do all that well: he’s not a big-time finisher, he’s not an all-around playmaking maestro, he’s not a true end-to-end threat in transition, he’s not a knockdown three-point shooter, he’s not the world’s greatest defender, his decision-making can be spotty, and he’s on an $80 million contract, which tends to make all of those problems feel even worse than they are. On top of that, Jackson is 26 and had free rein last year, so it’s hard to project significant further improvement across so many areas. In his defense, though, Jackson is a quality and comfortable pick-and-roll practitioner whose arrival in Detroit was critical to the team’s offensive improvement. While there might be reasonable doubts about his ceiling as a player and a team’s ceiling with him as the head of the snake, Jackson nevertheless oversaw a 44-win team that made the playoffs after a six-year drought. That should count for something, especially if he proves he can deliver that type of result on a consistent basis for the duration of his deal. (Last year: No. 94)

+ Ranked in the top-five league wide in drives and points off drives, per NBA.com
+ Led Detroit to its best record since 2008 and most efficient offense since 2011
He’s not particularly imposing, or pesky, or productive defensively
Although his team was swept by the Cavs in the 2016 playoffs, he complained endlessly about the refs

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

Even in the overanalyzed NBA, sometimes everyone asks the completely wrong question. Take the Celtics’ 2014 trade of Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks. At the time, the trade analysis centered almost totally on whether Rondo, a four-time All-Star coming off of a career-altering knee surgery, was worth a first-round pick and a second-round pick. Instead, the real question should have been: Why, why, why is Dallas trading two draft picks for the right to give away the best player in the deal (Jae Crowder)? Don’t think too hard about that question, or you might wonder why the Mavericks decided to pay wings Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes a combined $164 million over the last two summers while Crowder—a superior option to both—re-signed with the Celtics for relative peanuts. The 26-year-old Crowder (14.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG) is a prototypical gamer who fills in the gaps around his more gifted teammates on offense while running himself ragged on defense. Although it’s hard to envision him effectively stepping into a higher-usage role on offense, the 2012 second-round pick has made progress as a shooter and seems to fully embrace his complementary role on offense and lead role on defense. Crowder was a key reason why the Celtics ranked No. 5 in defense and No. 2 in forced turnovers; his return on the wing coupled with Avery Bradley’s ball-hawking up top and the arrival of Al Horford on the backline gives Boston defensive impact-makers at all of the most important positions. Even if Crowder’s trade value was nonexistent two years ago and even though his national name recognition is still pretty low, he’s the type of indispensable all-around contributor who can help a good team “overachieve” its way to the conference finals. (Last year: Not ranked)  

+ Registered 43 more steals than turnovers last year, ranking No. 2 in the NBA (+47)
+ Ranked in the top 30 in both Win Shares and Real Plus Minus.
He hasn’t yet shown he should be taking threes in heavy doses (33.6%)
His five-year, $35 million contract drastically undersells his value on the open market

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

LeBron James said this summer that he’s interested in potentially becoming an NBA owner one day, pointing to his interest in player evaluation. On that note, hats off to James and his agency for seeing and cultivating Tristan Thompson, a critical piece in Cleveland’s back-to-back runs to the Finals. The 25-year-old Thompson (7.8 PPG, 9 RPG) was easy to dismiss as he stacked up meaningless double-doubles on poor teams early in his career. James’s 2014 return to Cleveland coincided with some blossoming and refining from Thompson, who took a step back as a scorer to focus on rebounding and defense. The results have been extraordinary: Thompson has put his special nose for offensive rebounding to full use giving James extra possessions while also emerging as an undersized force with enough versatility and quickness to handle defensive assignments on the perimeter. After filling in admirably for the injured Kevin Love in the 2015 playoffs, Thompson supplanted Timofey Mozgov as Cleveland’s starter last season. With a James/Love/Thompson frontline in place alongside starting guards Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith, the Cavaliers truly hit their pace, posting a 119 offensive rating against a 106 defensive rating during the regular season, per NBAWowy.com. While there’s no doubt that Thompson (and his pocketbook) owes much to James’s game and influence, he’s held up his end of the bargain by becoming an indispensable two-way contributor on a championship team. (Last year: No. 70)

+ He led the NBA in offensive rebounds per game during the 2015 and 2016 playoffs
+ NBA-best offensive rating (130) in '16 ranks top 10 all-time (per Basketball-Reference.com)
Less than 4% of his field goal attempts last season came from outside 10 ft.
His undersized nature can be exposed around the basket

 

Monday September 12th, 2016

In a league where perimeter shooting often distinguishes teams between winners and losers, players like Parsons offer valuable points of leverage. The fifth-year forward can be trusted to spot up along the arc and relied upon to create in a pinch. That he easily slides between the 3 and the 4 only allows for further matchup control and lineup flexibility. In that way, Parsons helps to relieve some of the stresses of running an offense. When a primary ballhandler is trapped or denied, initiating the pick-and-roll is no problem. Parsons scored efficiently in the two-man game in each of his seasons in Dallas—his first real license to play a more active role in shot creation. When an opponent goes into rotation, Parsons is comfortable flooring the ball to either work his way into a shot or set up a lob for a teammate near the rim. There’s a lot to like in his offense, which unfortunately also means that his team also has a lot to miss when he’s gone. It has now been a matter of years since Parsons was fully healthy. He may never again have quite the same lift and explosion. Those are realities Parsons must now face, all while his team lives with the possibility that a key player might not always be available. (Last year: No. 66)

+ Still runs the floor well in transition despite his injuries
+ Eager to assist his teammates and has great chemistry with finishing bigs
Past two seasons have ended with knee surgeries
Swings between two positions but isn’t a particularly helpful defender on balance

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

McCollum’s secondary billing on the Blazers camouflages just how remarkable a scorer he’s become. Only 22 players in the league finished the season averaging 20 points per game. Among them, McCollum ranked sixth in effective field goal percentage. Some players buoy their efficiency by driving in volume and creating opportunities for fouls. McCollum manages it by making good on a startling percentage of his pull-up jumpers, both inside the arc and out. That kind of shot profile is amazingly difficult to maintain at McCollum’s clip but benefits from just how difficult it is to deny. When a guard like McCollum can pull up or step back any time he has the ball, the floor for a typical possession becomes a quality look. Accessibility of offense—a crucial element for players who create in volume—just isn’t an issue for a player who can handle and rise up so easily. McCollum also meshes that skill set with complementary function in a way that benefits high-usage teammates. At minimum, he’s an elite shooter running off of pin-downs and spacing the floor from the weak side, perfectly cable of counter driving when the defense overextends. The only awkwardness in McCollum’s game comes from the fact that he hasn’t shown the chops to work as a primary playmaker and doesn’t have the size or length to safely defend top shooting guards. There’s nothing distinctly wrong with falling into that combo guard middle ground, though it does require particular skill compensation from players around him that isn’t always available. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ Rained threes from all over: 40.8% above the break, 44.9% from the corners
+ Effective in-between game of lofty floaters and tricky bank shots
Doesn’t have much of a feel for defense, either in coverage or rotation
–​ Ordinary athlete by NBA standards

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

In theory, Bledsoe is an impressively productive shot creator, a propulsive driver, and one of the league’s most oppressive perimeter defenders. In reality, he’s a short guard with two bad knees. That divide creates all kinds of confusion for this kind of exercise, given that the very concept of Bledsoe as a player is subject to the uncertainty swirling around compounding surgeries. Bledsoe has performed well even after returning from multiple previous procedures. Yet this latest operation—to repair the meniscus in his previously healthy left knee—casts further doubt as to how his body will hold up. Bledsoe fought through knee injuries while in a lesser role with the Clippers and now only has more strain on his body in greater minutes and greater usage. It’s reasonable to wonder if the 26-year-old is physically suited for the kind of stardom his game suggests; a team would naturally want to make the most of all that Bledsoe does well and could, in the process, contribute to his gradual wear down. This ranking is a recognition of the risk that still prizes the player that Bledsoe can be when healthy. Very few high-level guards can match Bledsoe’s defensive pressure. He’s a menace to opposing ball handlers, to shooters curling around screens, and to bigger wings looking to bully their way to the basket. To add those qualifications (along with impressive rebounding) to his already robust offensive game makes Bledsoe one of the most purely capable guards in the league. (Last year: No. 33)

+ Registered more drives per game (11.7) than any other player in the league last season
+ Strength and speed offer amazing defensive versatility
A very capable defender who doesn’t always lock into his responsibilities
Inconsistent three-point shooter despite a career-best (37.2%) in 31 games last season

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Antetokounmpo raised his game across the board in Year Three, especially after the 2016 All-Star break. With the disappointing Bucks headed for the lottery, Antetokounmpo (16.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 4.3 APG) stepped into a new point guard role, dramatically upping his usage and assist rate while doing well to keep his turnovers in check. The individual results, as irrelevant to the standings as they might have been, were stunning: the 21-year-old Antetokounmpo averaged 19/9/7 after the break, monster numbers that bring to mind elite producers like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. Viewed as a raw prospect when he was taken in the 2013 lottery, Antetokounmpo showed improvement as a pick-and-roll initiator and converted transition opportunities into points like a seasoned pro. Although it was a brave and somewhat unorthodox decision, putting Antetokounmpo at the point made sense because it played to his preference for attacking. As a secondary benefit, the move also helped cover up his limited progress as an outside shooter by preventing him from cramping up the court from the wing. Defensively, his raw stats and end-to-end highlights outpace his impact numbers, as neither Synergy Sports nor Real Plus Minus looked all that favorably on his work at that end. The Bucks, meanwhile, were better defensively when he was on the bench last season. Nevertheless, Antetokounmpo’s leap forward as a playmaker stands as a critical milestone on his track to stardom. There’s little doubt he has even more excitement in store this season. (Last year: No. 100)

+ Best age-21 comparison point (17/7/4, 7.1 Win Shares): Lamar Odom (17/8/5, 6.5 WS)
+ One of nine to average at least one block and one steal last year (five of eight were All-Stars)
Fourth-worst three-point percentage (25.7%​) among players with at least 100 attempts
Shot just 24.3% and ranked in the fifth percentile in unguarded catch-and-shoot situations (per Synergy)

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Amid the Nuggets’ nondescript season was a sharp campaign from Gallinari, who got the better of defender after defender. Rather than try to sneak past quicker opponents, Gallinari would get a half-step on his defender and draw a bump that would send him to a line. Opponents that closed hard on his three-point tries were sometimes met with a not-entirely-legal leg extension—the sort that would send Gallo careening to the floor and generate three free throws. Gallinari was always willing to throw himself off-balance to create contact last season and played expertly into defenders’ reaches and swipes. A player does not shoot 8.2 free throws per game (fourth-most in the NBA) by accident. It’s to Gallinari’s credit that he was able to so consistently bait defenders into his space or push them back onto their heels and out of sound defensive position. The resulting free throws served to augment Gallinari’s scoring across the board—​in the post, out of isolations, in the pick-and-roll, driving off of spot-ups—​in a way that reinforced his versatility. He might not be the quickest, the strongest, or even the most skilled. Gallo just has enough guile to take his advantages for all they’re worth and churn out an efficient 19.5 points in an oversized role. It’s not ideal to have Gallinari create quite so much as Denver’s current roster demands, though operating in a secondary capacity would only yield more open looks and lanes to attack. (Last year: No. 73)

+ Drew fouls out of isolation at the same rate as James Harden last season
+ Combo forward who can compete defensively at both positions
Has a long, substantial (odd) injury history. Missed a quarter of his team’s games over the past three seasons
​ Underwhelming rebounder for his height, particularly when playing power forward

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

There’s no debating that the past 12 months stand as the high-water mark of DeMar DeRozan’s career: he posted career-highs in scoring, PER, and Win Shares, he advanced in the playoffs for the first time, he earned his second All-Star trip, he was a central piece on a top-five offense for the second straight season, he raked in a fat $139 million contract, and he won gold at the Rio Olympics. Even DeRozan’s harshest critics—the ones who rightfully point to his poor shot distribution, rough efficiency numbers, shaky three-point stroke and forgettable defense—must acknowledge that DeRozan (23.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4 APG) took his non-shooting approach to the shooting guard position about as far as it can go last season. How long will it take for the other shoe to drop? DeRozan, 27, has logged massive minutes for six straight seasons, he hasn’t made much progress extending his range, and he’s had the benefit of playing in the glow created by Kyle Lowry. DeRozan’s defensive work has really gone in the tank too: last year, Synergy Sports ranked him in the 21st percentile overall as a defender, Defensive Real Plus Minus ranked him No. 78 among shooting guards, and Toronto’s defensive rating improved by nearly six points when he was off the court. For now, DeRozan’s elite ability to get to the foul line and his strong fit with Lowry should keep this honeymoon going. Unfortunately for DeRozan, the margin between “Best season ever!” and “Big step backwards” looks pretty thin. (Last year: No. 61)

+ He set new career-highs with 23.5 PPG, a 21.5 PER and 9.9 Win Shares
+ Fourth in the 2016 playoffs with 123 FT attempts, trailing only KD, Westbrook and LeBron
 His 46.3 eFG% was worst among players with at least 1,200 field goal attempts last season
Led the NBA with 558 field goal attempts from 10-to-19 feet, but connected on just 40.3%

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Hats off to Isaiah Thomas, who took to Twitter to express disappointment about his ranking in SI’s Top 100 last year and then went out and proved that he was, in fact, underrated. A first-time All-Star in 2016, the 27-year-old Thomas (22.2 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3 RPG) answered a host of questions. Yes, he was capable of being the lead guard on a playoff team. Yes, he could step comfortably into a closer’s role, ranking fifth league-wide with 144 points in clutch situations. Yes, he was able to get buckets and get to the free-throw line like an alpha scorer while also making the right reads when defenses collapsed on his drives. Yes, he could log big minutes for an excellent defense despite his undersized stature. And, yes, he could hold up for 82 games while playing starter’s minutes and bearing a heavy usage burden. Now the bar has been raised, both for Thomas and his Celtics. With Al Horford in the mix, a third straight early exit in the postseason will no longer cut it. Thomas, in particular, must now prove that he can be a consistent, efficient scoring threat in the postseason when the defensive intensity ramps up and when he’s more likely to face intelligent schemes designed to limited his effectiveness. If the next step in Thomas’s journey is as entertaining as the last one, the 2016-17 season should be a thrill ride. (Last year: No. 88)

+ His 22.2 PPG last season ranked third all-time among players listed under 6 feet, trailing 1991 Michael Adams (26.5 PPG) and 1978 Calvin Murphy (25.6 PPG)
+ He led the NBA with 949 drives last season, ranking No. 2 with 619 points on drives
– He had his shot blocked 109 times last year, second most in the NBA
– Struggled in the postseason, as his overall efficiency, three-point shooting and finishing numbers all drop

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Individual scoring is but a small part of basketball evaluation. So much of what a player offers to a team is less direct: facilitating offense for others can be just as useful as scoring if not more so; preventative defense can slide the margin of a game dramatically and complicate an opponent’s team dynamics; a knack for grabbing contested rebounds can prove vital; and the ability to forge a symbiotic relationship with other superstars might be the most valuable characteristic of all. Iguodala barely scores but aces nearly every other criteria—leading first and foremost with defense. The most dangerous wings in the league are Iguodala’s purview. He sizes them up and plays to their tendencies as precisely as any defender in the league, beginning with where and when they’d like the ball. Denial from an expert defender imparts disadvantage. Some of the opponents’ possessions are derailed by Iguodala before they even have a chance to begin, all thanks to some single prevented action or stall in the works of a set play. From that point, players operating against Iguodala have to contend with one of the NBA’s best isolation defenders without the aid of play structure. Iguodala wins those one-on-one battles enough to actively discourage opponents from running sets his way. It’s a caliber of coverage that actually seeps into the way opponents call plays and make decisions at the most fundamental levels. Iguodala creates change—all without ever really needing the ball in his hands. (Last year: No. 44)

+ Vision and creativity make Iguodala a wonderful secondary playmaker
+ Flexible to role in the right situation
Already in decline, at risk of injury and age compromising his effectiveness
No longer collapses defenses like he used to

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

In fairness to Michael Jordan and Rich Cho, this is a good time to reassess the Hornets’ decision to trade Noah Vonleh for Nicolas Batum last summer. At the time, the move seemed short-sighted and risky: Vonleh was a 2015 lottery pick, Batum was coming off a down year and his contract was up after the season. But so far, everything has been peaches for Charlotte, as Vonleh hasn’t shown much in the way of development, Batum bounced back to have a good contract year, and the Hornets successfully inked him to a $120 million contract this summer. While there’s still plenty of time to worry about whether Batum (14.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 5.8 APG) will live up to his new deal, which runs through his age-32 season, for now the focus should be on the present. As a versatile playmaker, proven pick-and-roll initiator and passable outside shooter, Batum injected significant new life into Charlotte’s attack, making life easier for Kemba Walker and facilitating a transition to a more modern, less post-centric team approach. His presence paid dividends in the standings and from an entertainment value perspective: Charlotte was not only winning more than it lost, but it was finally a better show than drying paint. Batum, 27, will never rise to the level of a No. 1 option, but the Hornets would have been ruined in the short-term if he had left this summer, which says a lot. (Last year: No. 55)

+ His arrival helped lift Charlotte to its most wins (48) and best offensive efficiency rating (107.1) since the franchise was reestablished in 2004
+ One of only five to average at least 14/6/5 last season (LeBron, KD, Westbrook, Harden)
 Shot just 28.8% in clutch situations and 19.4% from deep last season
Despite his long-standing reputation as a good defender, lapses in awareness take a toll on his impact

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

When it comes to contract years to keep an eye on, Serge Ibaka’s should be at the top of the list. Dealt to the Magic in a draft day move, the 26-year-old big man is in for a new role, new responsibilities and, perhaps, a new type of scrutiny too. In Orlando, Ibaka should emerge as the team’s leader and best player, especially if he can recover from a disappointing 2015-16 season (12.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.9 BPG). But what will that mean for his game? Will he stick to what he’s done best in the past—serving as a release valve by spacing the floor, knocking down open shots and finishing with authority in the basket area—or will Orlando’s lack of A-list talent require that he be more involved as a pick-and-roll finisher or post-up option? On the other end, Ibaka has clearly slipped from his days as a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, although he’s still an impact-making interior presence. Can he be the driving force behind new coach Frank Vogel’s defense-first vision and how, exactly, will the Magic find the right pairings with Ibaka, fellow shot-blocking specialist Bismack Biyombo, offensive-minded center Nikola Vucevic, and promising forward Aaron Gordon all needing minutes? All of this is unchartered territory for Ibaka, who is used to fitting in rather than being a team’s focal point. The stakes are pretty big here: A successful transition could lead to near-max money, while another year of decline could significantly diminish his basketball worth. (Last year: No. 25)

+ Allowed opponents to shoot just 43.3% at the rim last season (per Nylon Calculus). His 228 contested shots in the playoffs ranked third behind Draymond Green and Tristan Thompson
+ He hit the same number of postseason threes as Kevin Durant (31) on 41 fewer attempts
– After undergoing season-ending knee surgery in 2015, his rebound and block rates hit career lows last year
– After playing with two All-Stars his entire career, he will join a talent-deficient Magic roster

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

The bottom line with Pau is that his typical output, no matter its caveats, is genuinely special. Only other two other players (Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love) over the last decade of basketball have matched his scoring (16.5), rebounding (11), and assisting (4.1) averages in the same season. Typical bigs just don’t pass like Gasol. The league’s top rebounders don’t usually score like him, either, nor do the top scoring bigs rebound in such volume. Those box score stats don’t much account for Gasol’s limitations, though in an empirical sense they’re also largely unobjectionable. These are the facts of Pau—not without complication but also not without truth. Yet as with most in this range, Gasol can only be as effective as his circumstances allow. The wrong mix of players will crowd his space in the post or exacerbate his problems on defense. It’s a delicate balance; Gasol is functionally locked into playing center but needs a comprehensive interior defender to play alongside him. His desire to post-up also calls for a floor-stretching counterpart who can keep the lane clear. The combination of those needs makes for a difficult prescription. Building a decent team around Gasol shouldn’t be a problem. It’s building a great one that’s more of an issue, given the way his game has aged and the intersectional talent needed to bring out his best. (Last year: No. 40)

+ A focal-point playmaker who can both initiate offense and facilitate
+ Shot a Dirk-like 52.3% on catch-and-shoot jumpers last season
Tall enough to contest at the rim but doesn’t move well defensively
Starting is important to Gasol, even when his team would be best served by a bench role

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Look past the mustache appreciation and testicle humor and remember this simple fact: Steven Adams is one of the most promising young centers in the league. Central to Adams’s emergence as a likely max rookie extension recipient is his two-way efficiency. On offense, he rolls hard, cuts hard, hits the glass hard and dunks hard, rarely straying outside those parameters. On defense, he’s more or less a prototypical modern center: he’s long enough to be a backline defender, tough enough to hold down the paint, and agile enough to step out to defend pick-and-rolls. The trickiest part in gauging expectations for Adams, who rose to the occasion during Oklahoma City’s run to the Western Conference finals, is remembering how many moving pieces will be around him. Last season, he benefited from the defensive length of Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant, his frontcourt partners, and from an offensive system that kept things simple for him. This year, he will find himself covering up defensively for the likes of Ersan Ilyasova and Enes Kanter, while also trying to do more offensively with far less surrounding help. Those are really big asks, on both sides of the ball. But, as Draymond Green found out, Adams isn’t one to back down from a challenge. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ OKC's defensive rating was eight points better with him on the court in '16 (per 82games.com)
+ Allowed opponents to shoot 54.5% from within five feet (virtually the same percentage as Serge Ibaka)
His career 55% FT shooting will likely make him a more frequent target of intentional fouls
The losses of Durant and Ibaka will allow defenses to collapse more aggressively on him

 

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

All of the tools are there for Middleton to carve out a living as a traditional support wing. Yet layered within his game are also the qualities of a prolific shot creator—the functional handle, the fluid pick-and-roll game, and far better one-on-one skills than his reputation suggests. The relatively anonymous Middleton scored in isolation at a volume and efficiency similar to Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, and Isaiah Thomas last season, according to Synergy Sports. He did so while doubling as just the kind of unassuming floor spacer Milwaukee needed to flank Giannis Antetokounmpo and balance its most effective lineups. Middleton ranks this high on our list because he makes that balance look easy. Rare are the wings who can take over when called, step back when needed, and defend effectively throughout. Middleton qualifies, and the proportional dimensions of his game render the 25-year-old as one of the most universal players on our list. Any team could welcome Middleton comfortably into their operation and find a perfect role for him. His style plays fast or slow, big or small. All that Middleton really needs is time on the floor to work. Milwaukee obliged last season and, in the broad applications of Middleton’s game, wound up playing him more than any other player on the roster. Some are just too useful in too many situations to take off the floor for long. (Last year: No. 45)

+ Quality wing defender with a bothersome, 6-11 wingspan
+ Managed to juice up his scoring game at no real cost to his shooting efficiency
Kind of a crummy rebounder relative to his size
Hasn’t yet carried a significant load for an above-average offense

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Lopez plodded along as usual last season to help carry the hapless Nets as much as one could. That it was all for naught is less a reflection on him than on the roster. No big could have redeemed a group that lacking and that inexperienced, especially when considering that post work has become a spatially collaborative enterprise. He did what he could under the circumstances—including dropping 20.6 points per game on 51.1% shooting from the field in a similar portioning of offense to years past. The bulk of it came from the post, though Lopez has also diversified his offense with plenty of rolls and cuts to avoid systemic stagnation. Those skill sets have even less overlap around the league than one might think. Very few of the league’s post specialists have a good sense of how to move and duck in at an opportune moment for an easy score, yet Lopez bolsters his efficiency on touches of that very kind. There’s only so much that a defense can do when a 7-footer slices through the lane for a deep, unexpected catch. Lopez takes that opportunity and runs with it, creating an additional lane of accessibility for his skilled offensive game. Thanks to wrinkles like this, Lopez could still function as a primary or secondary scoring option on a very good team. There just isn’t much in his game to actually elevate lesser players around him—especially given that Lopez is only an occasional passer from the low block and largely just a passable interior defender. He works, in good times and bad, as something of a monolith. (Last year: No. 38)

+ A qualified and comfortable mid-range shooter
+ Blends backing down and facing up opponents from the block
Slow feet all but lock his team into a particular defensive style
Remains an underwhelming rebounder

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Whispers of optimism are nice for Bosh, but his situation still looms over his and the Heat’s prospects—thereby influencing our rankings. We could not place Bosh purely according to his ability when there is a real possibility that he won’t play at all in the coming season. Drama with the Heat organization aside, Bosh’s condition casts serious doubt as to how much he can function like a normal, star-level contributor; in some regards, building around a player with this kind of major health issue would involve a franchise holding its collective breath for fear of some complication. Bosh was docked to this point not for any fault of his, but because of all that we do not and could not know about his immediate basketball future. It’s a shame that it’s come to this; Bosh’s game had taken an interesting shape after LeBron James’s departure, blending the shot creation of his early career with the floor spacing of his Miami turn. Bosh had quietly tapped into the dueling instincts of his game to play his most actualized offense yet. He again became a 20-point scorer almost incidentally, humming through enough spot-ups and pick-and-pops to bolster his creative endeavors. Through all of this he remained one of the least turnover-prone bigs in the league, even while taking on a more substantive playmaking role. Bosh was great—a versatile hub for offense, a plus defender, and the sort of star whose very presence augments the opportunities of those around him. Hopefully Bosh will return to the court soon and in good health to further his exemplary career. (Last year: No. 22)

+ Excellent one-on-one scorer when he did play last season
+ Above-average three-point shooter who can hold down the five spot
Defense regressed slightly from its stellar levels in the Heat’s championship seasons
Merely a decent defensive rebounder and only an occasional offensive rebounder

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

For years, the mention of Kemba Walker during our rankings process was met with dismissive disdain. Tries to do too much. Inefficient. Poor shot selection. Weak defender. Not good enough to be a No. 1 scoring option on a playoff team. This year, of course, everything is different, as Walker, 26, jumped from the land of the snubs to the top 40. Walker (20.9 PPG, 5.2 APG, 4.4 RPG) was a totally different player from a statistical standpoint last season: a much improved and more selective shooter, a more efficient scorer, a more effective player in crunch time, and a more trusting teammate. The arrival of some additional playmakers and floor-spacing options certainly helped, as did a faster pace and a new spread approach on offense that saw Charlotte’s assist ratio improve from No. 26 to No. 17 last season. Walker’s breakthrough is a familiar basketball story that never gets old: Everyone benefits when the basketball moves, even flashy lead guards who made their names by boasting a full arsenal of dribble moves and total confidence in their shot-making ability. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ In 2015-16, posted career highs in points, rebounds, FT attempts, FG%, 3P%, TS%, offensive rating, Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares.
+ Ranked No. 6 with 142 points in the clutch, improving his FG% in clutch situations from 28.2% (2014-15) to 39.2% (2015-16)
– His first shot at winning a playoff series slipped away in demoralizing fashion 
– Will need to adjust to a reconfigured rotation after losing Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Hassan Whiteside, still, makes no sense at all. In a way, his career mirrors a good murder mystery, where the plot only gets more confusing as the various clues accumulate. Go ahead, play Sherlock Holmes and considering the following: He ranked No. 7 in the NBA in Player Efficiency Ranking—and yet was moved to the bench for half of the season. He posted the NBA’s best individual defensive rating—and yet Miami’s team defensive numbers barely budged when he was on the court. He graded out as a strong scoring option in virtually every Synergy category—and yet he only took nine shots a game for a team whose offense ranked outside the top 10. And his immaturity and selfishness were regular points of internal criticism that became public—and yet when push came to shove the team that knows him best wasted no time forking over a $98 million contract. These strange circumstances, apparent contradictions and downright weirdness raise many of the same questions that loomed over Whiteside (14.2 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 3.7 BPG) before last season. His numbers and advanced stats are enormous, but is he an irreplaceable piece on a winning organization? Is he capable of stepping into a leading role and a position of authority? Can you count on him, night in and night out, for 82 games, especially now that he’s not playing for a contract? And, perhaps most importantly, why are these questions still being asked of a 27-year-old? With the Heat needing to rely on him more heavily now than ever, perhaps this season will shed some clarifying light on Whiteside’s true value. Then again maybe not. (Last year: No. 69)

+ He led the NBA in blocks and defensive rating last season
+ Joined Marcus Camby as the only players in the last decade to average at least 11 RPG and 3 BPG 
– The Heat will pay him $22.1 million in 2016-17, which amounts to 22.5 times more than his 2015-16 salary
– Averaged one assist per 93.8 minutes over his career, and never registered more than two in a game

 

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Prime Howard is clearly a thing of the past, lost to time and an ailing back. We won’t again see his skyscraping vertical as Howard finishes an impossible lob or erases the shot of some hopeless opponent. It was those qualities—along with Howard’s feel for coverage and ability to cover ground—that distinguished him as one of the very best players in the league. Now they exist in such muted variations that the Rockets let Howard walk in free agency without objection. Clearly he is no longer suited to play for just any team. The right one, however, can still make great use of Howard’s mobility, rim protection, and strengths as a finisher. To be in decline is not to be washed. Howard can still do a lot of good when he’s able to quiet his contrary instincts and work his way into the right positions. His own judgments are implicit in that, for better or worse. Too often Howard tries to orient his offense from the post when that element of his game has suffered the steepest decline. His team can live with that impulse if it can be reasonably controlled. Howard, like most players, invests more when he feels involved in play-to-play operations. A strict catch-and-finish role wouldn’t provide that and thus would undercut the defense and rebounding that make him this valuable in the first place. Indulging Howard thus becomes a crooked necessity—an acceptance of one of the weaker aspects of his offensive game for the sake of accessing a broader scope of skills. You don’t post Howard for efficient returns. You post him (in small doses!) because he’s an outstanding finisher whose low-block inefficiency comes out in the wash. You post him because he still, even in decline, is one of the most effective deterrents around the rim in the entire league. You post him for the screens, the rim runs, the rolls, and the thankless defensive possessions where he’s left to clean up the mess. There’s enough here to justify the investment, frustrating though it may be in concept. (Last year: No. 19)

+ Very difficult to box out; strong enough to get the ball better than half the time (50.9%) when within 3.5 feet
+ A presence in the lane that reshapes where opponents get their shots
Free throw problems somehow got even worse (48.9%) last season
One of the most turnover-prone players in the NBA

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Put Rudy Gobert anywhere on God’s green Earth, and he’ll improve the local team’s defensive rating considerably. “Long” doesn’t even begin to describe the 7’1” Gobert, who has ranked in the top five in block percentage and the top six in rebound percentage in each of the last two seasons. At 24, and coming off of an incomplete season, Gobert (9.1 PPG, 11 RPG, 2.2 BPG) is already playing at an elite level and still has room for growth. That’s great news for the Jazz, who are poised to make a serious run up the West standings. While Gobert isn’t quite as nimble as other up-and-coming centers, he’s an absolute keeper: he skies for blocks, he fearlessly challenges plays at the rim regardless of the YouTube consequences, he aggressively contests and actively deters countless shots, and he can foil drives simply by sizing up a ball-handler. Thanks to the arrival of George Hill, plus a deeper and more flexible supporting cast, the Gobert-led Jazz can make a run at the NBA’s top defensive efficiency mark. With good health, Gobert should be firmly in the mix for All-Defensive Team and Defensive Player of the Year honors. (Last year: No. 39)

+ He allowed the lowest field goal percentage at the rim last season (per Nylon Calculus)
+ More than 80% of his field goal attempts came from within 2 feet last year
He missed 21 games last season, including an extended stretch due to a knee injury
He scored just 16 points all season in post-up situations (per Synergy Sports)

 

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

Dwyane Wade will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in part because he expertly navigated through ego minefields. Make Shaquille O’Neal feel appreciated? No problem, ring number one. Convince LeBron James and Chris Bosh to team up in Miami? No problem, rings two and three. But what awaits Wade in Chicago is a different beast entirely: he’s no longer the franchise icon, he’s no longer on a team with enough talent to harbor serious title aspirations, and he’s no longer a top-10 talent himself. What’s more, Wade is leaving a Heat team where he was the meal ticket who was surrounded by, for the most part, deferential personalities like Goran Dragic, Luol Deng and Justise Winslow who could help cover up some of his flaws. In Chicago, Wade will tussle with ultra-stubborn point guard Rajon Rondo for control of the ball and he will jockey with rising star Jimmy Butler for the marquee attention. He’ll also approach those tasks without the backing of an experienced, proven and trusted coach like Erik Spoelstra. The good news: Wade, 34, arrives with some positive momentum. Last year, he appeared in 74 games, his most since 2010-11, he posted All-Star worthy numbers (19 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4.6 APG), and he delivered in a big way when it mattered in the first round of the playoffs. The bad news: he’s leaving a Heat organization that was long designed to win on his terms for a Bulls organization that spent this summer proving that it doesn’t have anything resembling a big-picture vision. (Last year: No. 30)

+ Has posted a 20+ PER in 12 consecutive seasons, tied with LeBron for the longest active streak
+ Ranked sixth in the NBA with 142 points in clutch situations last season, in part because he attempted more than twice as many clutch shots as any teammate 
He’s an ill-fitting centerpiece for a Bulls team that was supposedly aiming for pace and space
He ranked outside the top 60 among shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus Minus last year

 

Tuesday September 13th, 2016

There is an understandable tendency with aging players to dwell on all that they can no longer do. Nowitzki suffers from those same deficits—in volume shot creation, in rebounding, and, frankly, in anything that demands he match speeds with an opponent around the floor. The vision of a peak Dirk is vivid enough to bring all of these elements into contrast. Yet even at 38 years old, Nowitzki operates from the same basic foundation of skills and production that have long made him one of the best players in the league. Classifying Dirk by his aging game misses the fact that he still compromises the structure of an opposing defense with his shooting. It glosses over the fact that he rates as one of the most efficient post players in the game and can fire over the top of the majority of his opponents. It undersells the value of him creating so much and turning the ball over so little. It misses the powerful through line of his gravity and how that transforms the games of the guards around him. Playing with Nowitzki makes the game of basketball easier. That’s exactly the quality that made him such a steadying influence over the course of his career, and its inevitable shift in magnitude does not convey a shift in flavor. Dirk is still Dirk—and that’s enough. (Last year: No. 28)

+ A cultural anchor whose value to a franchise extends well beyond the court
+ Solid passer well-versed in solving a variety of coverages
Can be targeted in the pick-and-roll and forced to defend in space
Now necessary to mind his minutes and games played to endure the long regular season

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

Remove Kevin Love from the Cavaliers and put him on a team in a vacuum. That team might have more to gain from Love taking on a creative role, whereas that dimension of his game goes largely untapped in Cleveland. Tweak the dynamics around Love and suddenly his elbow touches might become central to a quality offense—a starting point for quality sets and shots that leans on Love to operate as few other bigs in the league can. The fully enabled Love can curl around a screen into a jumper, post smaller defenders, facilitate to turn good looks into better ones, isolate using the threat of his jumper, and hit the glass for opportunistic points. There’s only so much need to access these skills when a possession would otherwise work through LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, but most teams aren’t so lucky as to put a viable star into a tertiary role. Defense remains an issue. Love was agile enough to keep his positioning on that single, fateful possession to close out Game 7 of the NBA Finals, yet overall he’s still a sore spot in the Cavaliers’ coverage that has to be accounted for. That’s not crippling—it’s simply a consideration that has to be dealt with and absorbed, and one that is generally offset by the wide, varied production that Love brings elsewhere. (Last year: No. 17)

+ Excellent defensive rebounder whose outlet passes can jump-start an offense
+ Solid three-point shooter overall but especially good (39.9%) from the corners 
Sometimes shorts his defensive effort over the course of a full possession
Offers no rim protection whatsoever

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

It didn’t take long for Andre Drummond to validate Detroit’s decision to roll with him as the franchise center and move on from Greg Monroe. In his first year playing in a spread offensive system, the 23-year-old Drummond (16.2 PPG, 14.8 RPG, 1.4 BPG) put his elite size and strength to full use, posting career-highs in scoring and rebounding while helping Detroit post its best offensive efficiency ranking since 2008. Although he’s still an unpolished, inconsistent scoring option on the block and a major liability when hacked, Drummond compensates for those weaknesses by wearing down his opponents, pounding the offensive glass and finishing with authority when he gets a clean window in pick-and-roll situations. He hasn’t yet reached “Young Dwight Howard” levels when it comes to offensive impact (and he probably won’t ever get there), but Drummond has made steady progress since he entered the NBA as a teenager. This season marked Drummond’s third straight playing 80+ games, and that reliability, coupled with good health from his fellow starters, played a big role in Detroit’s defensive improvement. After years of below-average and disorganized defenses, the Pistons have been much better under Stan Van Gundy, with Drummond deserving credit for holding down the boards and covering up for some fairly weak-defending power forwards alongside of him. By the time Detroit got around to inking Drummond to a $130 million rookie contract extension this summer, the deal was hardly news. There just wasn’t anything to debate or discuss: He earned it. (Last year: No. 35)

+ A first-time All-Star and All-NBA selection last year, he led the NBA in rebounds, ranked in the top 30 in PER, Win Shares, and Real Plus Minus, and tallied a league-best 66 double-doubles (12 more than anyone else)
+ The best age-22 comparison point for his 2015-16 production (16.2/14.8/1.4, 7.4 Win Shares) is Hall of Famer Moses Malone (19.4/15/1.3, 6.1 WS)
His ghastly 35.5% free-throw shooting last season was the lowest mark all-time among players with at least 500 attempts
Although he’s one of the NBA’s most prolific dunkers, he has significant room to improve as a finisher around the basket, ranking in the 27% percentile in post-up scoring per Synergy Sports

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

The Jazz are zigging where a lot of teams are zagging, and Derrick Favors’s comprehensive two-way game makes it all possible. With so many teams hoping to play smaller and faster, the 25-year-old Favors makes for a nightly mismatch. His strength, honed scoring ability and motor are tough to handle for perimeter-oriented fours, as he can pound the glass on both ends and work his way to high-percentage shots against undersized defenders. At the same time, Favors (16.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.5 BPG) moves well defensively for a man of his size, meaning he can be played for stretches alongside a true center without being exposed. As a result, the Jazz can trot out traditional lineups featuring Favors and Rudy Gobert that control the tempo, force lots of tough and contested looks, dominate the glass and suck the life out of the opposition. But, wait, there’s more: Favors can also shift up to play center, giving coach Quin Snyder a strong backline defender at his disposal for all 48 minutes. This year, Utah should be able to downshift into spread looks more easily thanks to the additions of Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson, plus growth from Trey Lyles. With extra space, Favors should be in even better position to operate one-on-one in the paint against overmatched defenders. If Utah takes a step forward in the standings, as expected, it will be fascinating to see how the rest of the West will handle matchups with Favors in the postseason. Do you stay big in hopes of neutralizing him, thereby going along with Utah’s preferred style? Or, do you try to go small in hopes of playing him or Gobert off the court while running the risk that he might pound you into submission? (Last year: No. 37)
 

+ One of just eight players to average at least one steal and one block last season, he graded out well defensively by the major advanced metrics and can comfortably handle both fours and fives
+ His physicality and skill make him hard to stop when he works up a head of steam going to the hoop, whether he’s making decisive moves from the post, crashing the offensive glass, cutting hard to the basket off the ball, or rolling with purpose in the two-man game
He missed a career-high 20 games last season, including an extended stretch due to a back injury
He forms a beastly pairing with Rudy Gobert on the defensive end, but he needs to continue to improve his shooting if the Jazz are going to find enough offensive spacing with that duo.

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

As his teammates took turns missing long stretches with injuries, Gordon Hayward delivered another strong and steady season (19.7 PPG, 5 RPG, 3.7 APG) that was easy to overlook because the Jazz failed to crack the playoffs. A versatile wing who has grown more comfortable and effective as a lead scorer and ball-handler, the 26-year-old Hayward deserves the “Franchise Player” tag, even if he’s never earned All-Star or All-NBA honors and even if he’s not quite potent enough to be included among the NBA’s most fearsome wing scorers. The key to Hayward’s value lies in his durability, his willingness to fill in the gaps for his team, and his lack of major weaknesses. During his six-year career, Hayward has appeared in 93% of his team’s games, avoiding the type of major health issues that often impact high-usage, high-minute wings. Indeed, since emerging as Utah’s leading scorer in 2013–14, he’s logged more total minutes than all but five NBA players. During that time, he’s proven to be an adaptable offensive tool: he works on the ball as a pick-and-roll option and off-the-ball as a spot-up and catch-and-shoot threat. Defensively, he lags a bit behind the NBA’s top two-way wings in terms of sheer physicality, but he’s good at containing and directing ball-handlers and he can switch seamlessly as needed on the perimeter. While Hayward might fall short on the “Can he be the No. 1 guy on a championship team?” question, he absolutely aces the “Would he be able to make strong contributions regardless of the players around him?” test. It’s no wonder that his name started percolating in trade rumors earlier this summer, more than a year before he is eligible for free agency. (Last year: No. 31)
 

+ He covered 202.9 miles during the 2015–16 season, second only to C.J. McCollum (205.7)
+ He’s made progress refining his game under Quin Snyder, upping his free throw rate and three-point rate while cutting down considerably on his long twos
His clutch numbers indicate that he was asked to do more than he can handle late in games. Over the last two seasons, he shot 7-for-33 on threes and committed 36 turnovers (versus 24 assists) in 316 clutch minutes
He can opt out of the final year of his four-year, $63 million rookie extension and become an unrestricted free agent next summer

 

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

Conley is the patron saint of poise. Nothing a defense does can rattle him, in part because Conley has a great feel for which teammates offer him the simplest paths out of trouble and a robust assortment of dribble moves keep him agile. The ability to navigate the interior of a defense is contingent on ball control; to snake between defenders is to put a live dribble at risk, and Conley may have a better understanding than any guard in the league of how to control his dribble relative to encroaching defenders at every angle. Both hands, and thus both directions, are fair game at all times. Conley’s peers speak enviously of his ability to shoot a floater with either hand, knowing full well how that small distinction can throw the coverage off-balance. So much of what a defense does is rooted in expectation of where a player wants to go and what a team wants to do. Conley challenges that focus by changing directions, giving up the ball early, working from dribble hand-offs, and driving in a way that keeps his options open. It follows, then, that Conley is so effective in crunch-time situations—a point in the game at which a flexible style helps to withstand heightened defensive pressure. Take one thing away from Conley and he’ll transition smoothly to another. Little can be done to take away that freedom, thus leaving a skilled, smart point guard to his own devices. (Last year: No. 27)

+ Ranked lowest among point guards in true turnover percentage
+ A stifling perimeter defender when healthy
Fought through injuries over the last few seasons
Being a smaller guard takes its toll on screens, collisions, etc.

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

This might feel low for Irving, 24, whose scintillating play as LeBron’s sidekick down the stretch of the Finals was crucial in ending Cleveland’s championship drought. Irving’s defenders will rightfully argue that his advanced scoring ability, remarkable creativity, and fearlessness in pressure situations are unmatched by many of the names above him on this list. But Irving (19.6 PPG, 4.7 APG, 3 RPG) nevertheless falls short in a few meaningful ways that keep him from higher placement among his star colleagues. Most obviously, there’s the matter of his defensive impact and attentiveness, which trail far behind the elite players at his position. Past that, there are reasonable questions as to how well his game would transfer to a team that isn’t captained by James: Irving’s shortcomings as an offense-initiator were on full display in Cleveland before James’s 2014 return, and they popped up again at the Rio Olympics, even when he was surrounded by talent on all sides. There’s also the matter of his health and durability: Irving has missed 22% of his team’s games during his five-year career, and he’s most effective when he’s playing at breakneck speed, even if that means courting risk. While James and the Cavaliers have done a masterful job constructing a role for Irving and while he deserves full credit for rising to the occasion during the playoffs, there’s a nagging sense that the three-time All-Star would flounder a bit if asked to lead his own show. (Last year: No. 23)

+ Proud owner of one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history, as he sank a contested, step-back, go-ahead three-pointer in the final minute of Game 7
+ Joined Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook as the only under-25 players to score 40+ points in a Finals game since 2000
The advanced numbers aren’t kind to his defense. At all. He ranked in the 38% percentile in overall defense per Synergy Sports and he ranked an eye-popping 76th among point guards in Defensive Real Plus Minus (in the same range as hopeless matadors like D’Angelo Russell and Trey Burke)
 A season-ending knee injury sustained during the 2015 Finals caused him to miss Cleveland’s first 24 games of 2015-16

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

Anthony’s poignant interview after the gold medal game at the Rio Olympics was an unusual sight: How often does at established star playing for the prohibitive favorite get choked up after a 30-point blowout win? In Anthony’s case, though, his emotional outpouring made sense for two reasons: 1) He had just completed a lengthy and successful career with USA Basketball on the highest possible note, and 2) It must have felt really, really good to be victorious and in the middle of the action again. In recent years, Anthony’s marketing endeavors, charitable contributions and outspoken advocacy have generally trumped his on-court accomplishments, as his Knicks have faded far off the relevancy radar. While Anthony, still one of the toughest covers in the game, put up strong numbers (21.8 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 4.2 APG) in a hopeless situation last year, his time as a centerpiece superstar is either coming to an end or already complete. For three straight postseasons now, he’s been forced to watch his peers from home; Cleveland’s championship was not only another badge of honor for friend LeBron James, but also a crowning achievement for his longtime running mate, J.R. Smith. When even Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is willing to say that it’s “unlikely” the 32-year-old Anthony will ever win a title, it’s hard not to feel Father Time closing in. Still, Anthony remains a dependable scorer in isolation, in the post and when using screens. Last season, he seemed to deemphasize his long-established alpha scoring mentality in favor of a more distribution-minded approach.  As a result, he averaged four assists for the first time in his career, and his 21/7/4 stat line was matched in all three categories by only three players: James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Combine Anthony’s obvious joy in Rio, New York’s nonstop wheel-spinning, and the adaptability of his offensive focus, and it’s hard not to dream about what might happen if he decided to opt out in 2018 and go down the ring-chasing path. (Last year: No. 15)
 

+ Set new career highs in assists while taking his fewest shots per game in more than a decade
+ New York’s bottom-five offense was absolutely atrocious without him, as its offensive rating fell by 9.1 points when he left the court
His scoring average, usage rate and free-throw rate have fallen for three straight seasons since he was the NBA’s scoring champ in 2013
At 32, he’s missed 21% of his team’s games over the last five seasons

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

Towns made for one of our toughest rankings. It really is only a matter of time before he storms the ranks of the NBA elite. Towns is skilled and versatile in all the ways befitting a modern big and shows incredible defensive aptitude. His roll game is balanced by a smooth, pick-and-pop jumper. His post-ups are bolstered by his court vision and willingness to share the ball. His quick feet allow him to both scurry to stay in front of guards on the perimeter (Towns may be the ideal Warriors countermeasure) and recover mid-play to wall off the rim. Most of Towns’s discrete skills are advanced far beyond his years, and together they build off of one another to make him one of the most formidable players in the league. Take, for example, his jumper. Towns was so consistent with his shot last season (47.6% from mid-range) that his pump fake became a best-seller. From there, Towns had the footwork to blow by his man, the handle to drive confidently, the quickness to streak to the rim, and the touch to finish around it. Those compounding talents made Towns the most efficient isolation scorer in the league last season—an impossible puzzle that gave defenders little recourse. What is one to do when every jab step and shot fake conveys a legitimate threat? The only things keeping Towns from rocketing up our list are his defensive inexperience and body of work relative to the most accomplished players in the league. The players Towns is measuring up against in this ranking are proven playoff commodities, franchise centerpieces, All-NBA fixtures, and recurring All-Stars. All have produced and provided at incredible levels for their respective teams. Towns shares in that, albeit with the catch that his team ranked in the bottom third of the league in net rating. That will change—and soon. Yet for the moment, it seemed fair to slot Towns in a position that acknowledged all he can and will do while also confirming the sustained success of those ranked ahead of him. (Last year: Not ranked)

+ As sure of a superstar prospect as you’ll find
+ Balanced skill set makes him a perfect fit for almost any system
Still developing as a rebounder; gets pushed around a bit and held by veteran opponents
Learning the particulars of professional-level defense

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

A navicular fracture is the kind of injury that can slowly derail an NBA career. Yao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, among others, were haunted by it. Joel Embiid has yet to leave the launchpad because of it. Now Gasol, at age 31, will have to push through his recovery from the break to pick up where he left off. Lingering pain is a real risk with this sort of injury and could potentially hinder Gasol throughout the season. That has to be taken into account when attempting to predict just how effective Gasol will be this year—as does his broader record of nagging injury. Those factors were enough to bump Gasol down from his usual residence in these rankings, if only this far. There are limits to how much we’re willing to push a player who could fairly claim to be the best at his position when healthy. Gasol operates on that level: his passing and shooting can lift an offense to fluidity while his defense, at its best, can anchor an entire system. Teams interested in working out of the low post can feed Gasol on the block and watch opponents scramble to contain him. Gasol is so big and strong that opponents can be easily baited into double teams, which in effect only serve as an accessory to one of Gasol’s no-look passes to the open man. Gasol could also be stationed at the elbow just as easily, where he can execute dribble hand-offs that work as a faux pick-and-roll, survey a play’s development from a clear angle, and tug at the defense with the threat of his jumper. There are times when Gasol has to be goaded into pressing as a scorer—restraint is his default setting—but better that then a less capable player who insists on doing too much. (Last year: No. 9)

+ Maybe the best big-to-big passer in the league; understands the spacing of the interior
+ Sets a strong, wide base for effective screens
Gasol’s particular foot fracture carries a worrisome precedent
Didn’t defend quite up to his usual standards last season

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

There is an unmistakable moxie to Lillard that serves as a guiding principle of his play. Whatever shot the defense gives, he’ll take; Lillard isn’t shy about stepping into long three-pointers or pulling up early on defenses daft enough to give him room. He keeps his balance and his wits about him on the toughest of shots, finding ways to connect on a larger percentage than would seem reasonable. The volume of what Lillard can generate is more than enough to lead an offense and the range of looks he creates is more than enough to keep it viable. Scorers of his magnitude essentially force a defense into mistakes. Either opponents overplay Lillard so severely that his teammates are left wide open or they leave themselves vulnerable to Lillard’s incendiary shooting game. There are no safe plays or right answers—all because Lillard himself nixes them. Unfortunately, Lillard is the sort of defender all but guaranteed to give points back in the exchange. He will go through stretches of games where his investment and attention to detail pay off in the form of passable coverage. More often, Lillard is the defender allowing a clear driving lane to his man or stepping out of position at an inopportune time. The problem with hiding players like Lillard, too, is that their height becomes an exploitable factor in cross-match situations. Stashing Lillard on a lesser scoring threat won’t fully protect him from being worked over in the post or left flat-footed as an opponent shoots over the top. Teams would still gladly take that tradeoff because Lillard works offensively in a way so few other players can. You hide Lillard when possible, you protect him through your system, and if all else fails, you take solace in the fact that one of the most dangerous scorers in the game will take every target as a slight. (Last year: No. 24)

+ Ranked ninth in points generated via assist per game
+ Does a surprisingly effective job of getting into the mix as a rebounder
A poor enough defender that it can be difficult to even hide him
Subpar finisher on contested layups

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

Every year, Jordan seems to clarify his understanding of when and how to use size to his advantage. It’s more difficult to bait him out of position now than it was a year ago—his bad tendencies whittled down through experience. Jordan will never be the picture of defensive discipline, but slowly he’s grown into the kind of consistent interior presence that can carry a contending-level defense. His influence begins with the fact that players prefer not to challenge him. Clippers opponents attempted 3.5 fewer shots at the rim per 36 minutes last season when Jordan played, according to Nylon Calculus—one of the widest margins in the league. Jordan’s liftoff is so quick and his reach so wide that he reshapes the thinking behind an otherwise ideal shot attempt. That’s power—especially now that Jordan is staying down more often and positioning himself more effectively. Jordan wouldn’t be ranked where he is on this list, though, if not for his offense. Anything more than a few dribbles veers outside his comfort zone. Jordan took just 46 shots (out of 508) last season outside the restricted area and four outside the paint, converting poorly on all of them. He doesn’t pass well and costs his team points whenever he’s fouled. What Jordan does do is dunk nearly every ball he touches within range of the basket, and work himself within that range with a dogged persistence. Uncanny athleticism gives Jordan more physical space to work with than nearly every other player he comes up against. An easy finish is so often only a lob pass away; being able to jump higher and run faster than nearly every other center in the league gives Jordan access to a different plane. Defenses have little choice but to treat his cuts and rolls as imminent threats. His gravity can pull three defenders out of position and thus out of their scheme without Jordan ever touching the ball. (Last year: No. 29)

+ Shot 83.6% off of paint touches last season—which doesn’t include those possessions in which opponents hopelessly fouled
+ One of the game’s most committed and prolific defensive rebounders
Awful enough free throw shooter that he costs himself playing time
Limited offensive range makes him very dependent on playmakers

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

There are a million terrifying things to consider about the 2016–17 Warriors, but here’s one more: Klay Thompson is the perfect No. 2 option, a lights-out shooter with permanent confidence who never kills his team’s flow, never steps on the alpha dog’s toes, and remains ready to take over at a moment’s notice if the offense stalls out. Well, that perfect No. 2 option just became the most overqualified No. 3 option in the NBA. The 26-year-old Thompson (22.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.1 APG) should make the adjustment to life with Kevin Durant just fine. Offensively, Thompson might get fewer shots, but they should be cleaner. Durant should also help cover up Thompson’s limitations as an off-the-dribble threat; if defenses overplay the Warriors’ shooters on the perimeter, as they often did during the playoffs, Thompson can shift into a spacing role in the corner as Durant handles the drive-and-decide responsibilities. Meanwhile, Thompson’s life on the defensive end shouldn’t change much at all, as he continues to hound opposing star perimeter players into contested shots. In other words, Thompson’s “sacrifice” next season should turn into a pretty good deal: If everything goes according to plan, he’ll get to keep doing what he does best while feeling less pressure to stray outside his comfort zones. (Last year: No. 26)

+ Hit 42.5% of his three-pointers on 8.1 attempts per game last season. That would stand as the best high-volume three-point shooting season in NBA history if not for teammate Stephen Curry
+ Shot 40.7% on threes and 89.5% on free throws during clutch situations last season
Made the mistake of poking the bear (LeBron) before Game 5 of the Finals, telling reporters that the NBA is a “man’s league” and that LeBron James took Golden State’s trash talk “personal” and that his “feelings just got hurt.” James responded by averaging 36/12/10 in the next three games to lead the Cavaliers to the title
Went just 5-for-20 from deep in Games 6 and 7 of the Finals, both losses

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

Part of what made Horford’s free agency so fascinating this summer was that his game could apply so well to so many different systems and team constructions. If Boston hadn’t worked out, Detroit, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Washington, Portland, Toronto, San Antonio, Indiana, or Houston all would have made good sense. Others, too, would have been viable were those teams not otherwise committed to quality frontcourt players. Finding Horford a home within is essentially as simple as allocating him minutes at either frontcourt spot and shaping his role to fit whatever it is the team might need. The essence of his game is facilitation. Horford can post, guard, space, rotate, cut, pass, switch, screen, rebound, and pop to whatever degree makes sense and succeed in all areas. He can spend his time on the low block, the elbow, the top of the key, or the baseline depending on what openings are available, and he can either play up when defending a pick-and-roll or drop back as the system demands. Horford will shoot better than 50% from the field and rarely turn the ball over, regardless, closing the loop one of the most comprehensive skill sets in the NBA. If you still aren’t under the impression that Horford is a genuine star, you have a lot of homework to do. (Last year: No. 21)

+ Exceptional passer who could run an offense from the high post
+ Quality positional defender who understands how to track opponents in space
Experiences some rebounding troubles against bigger centers
Dabbled with a three-point shot last season but hasn’t yet hit a league-average %

Wall is a genius of basketball geometry who sees through the clutter and the rotations to find the best possible angles. Even some of the game’s other top passers operate within a read-and-react framework—the lane opens and a play is made. Wall operates in a way that actively engineers those openings, not just through speed and agility but creative design. An open layup comes to Wall by first gently guiding two defenders out of position with a drive and headfake. An open three materializes because Wall anticipated the moment of a defense’s collapse and rocketed a crosscourt pass to answer an opponent’s early rotation. Every relevant passing statistic, general or specific, sings the praises of Wall for both the volume of points he creates and the specific kinds of looks he generates. No other guard in the league last season generated more three-pointers off the pass and only one set his teammates up with more potential assists. The trouble in ranking Wall is reconciling that obvious, sensational ability with the fact that he was one of the three highest-usage players in the league and captained an offense that too often went nowhere at all. Wall wasn’t the cause of Washington’s lost season but he did surprisingly little to redeem it. Zoom out further and you see a troublesome, Rondovian trend: Despite his impressive playmaking, Wall hasn’t yet led the Wizards to average offensive efficiency in six seasons. That’s concerning—especially now that the Washington has attempted two dramatically different styles. Wall’s rough shooting off the dribble undoubtedly plays a part, given that he insisted on taking nine pull-up jumpers a game last season to miserable ends (38.4% eFG). Overdribbling can be a problem at times, too, when Wall is hunting for a particular passing angle that might not materialize. Making plays and running offense are, in a sense, two discrete skills. Wall is noticeably further along in one than the other—to the point where even his strengths are undercut by his judgments. (Last year: No. 13)

+ Long, pesky defender with a good feel for applying pressure
+ Size and length allow him to overwhelm some opposing point guards
Poor shooting complicates his team’s operations
Weirdly inefficient in transition situations, given his quickness

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

Take a look at Jimmy Butler these days, and it’s hard not to hear the Fresh Prince rapping “My life got flipped turned upside down” in the background. In 2014–15, Butler’s breakout year, the Bulls were coached by Tom Thibodeau and the most-used lineup featuring Butler included Derrick Rose, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Two years later, Butler is significantly richer and more decorated, but he’s also surrounded by entirely new faces: Thibodeau is in Minnesota, Rose and Noah are in New York, Gasol is in San Antonio and Dunleavy is in Cleveland. Almost as soon as the 26-year-old Butler arrived, he was left as the last man standing. The good news: Butler (20.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.6 SPG) is, much like Paul George before him, a two-way game-changer whose stabilizing presence makes it possible for management to pursue a dramatic makeover. While the 2016 All-Star and All-NBA Third Team selection remains a cut below the NBA’s A-list wings, he is dynamic enough on offense and committed enough on defense to carry a team to respectability as long as he can stay healthy. The most curious aspect of Chicago’s retooling effort, however, is how few of the moves seemed to play to Butler’s strengths. Fred Hoiberg’s softer touch led to some friction last year. Rajon Rondo will take touches away. Dwyane Wade, pitched as some sort of star mentor to Butler, feels more like unnecessary competition for attention and shots. Perhaps, then, Butler is best off keeping his head down in the event that there’s another round of dramatic changes coming sooner rather than later. (Last year: No. 18)
 
+ Traveled 2.64 miles per game on the floor last season, tops in the NBA
+ Ranked in the top 25 in PER, Win Shares and Real Plus Minus, joining LeBron, Durant and Kawhi as the only wings 
Missed 47 combined games over the last three seasons due to various injuries
Never found balance with Derrick Rose, who possessed the ball for 5.7 MPG last year. Rajon Rondo, Chicago’s new point guard, averaged 7.5 MPG worth of possession

 

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

Millsap came into the league as a undersized rebounding specialist and emerged over the last few seasons as one of the game’s best frontcourt defenders. The direction of the modern game suits him; Millsap’s quick feet make him an easy switch between wings and bigs and a decent option to step up against a point guard in a pinch. The list of players who could really work Millsap over is limited to a few of the truly elite. Everyone else is within his defensive range—the quick hands, the smart positioning, the effort contests. Millsap works his ass off to play both bigger and smaller than he is, depending on his situation. Atlanta needed rim protection so Millsap did what he could to provide it. Some other team with different needs might move Millsap over to guard small forwards more regularly. What matters is the option—that a big would be mobile and skilled enough to make himself a viable a candidate for so many different defensive roles. Millsap’s game is a riff on the same principles that make Draymond Green so damn effective. It’s an interesting comparison: Green is a slightly better defender and passer but Millsap is the more capable scorer and rebounder. There are situations in which one would clearly make more sense than the other, but in a general sense they share an otherwise unique corner of the NBA landscape. Bigs who make plays, spread the floor, and defend well across multiple positions are catalyzing the best teams in the league. Millsap is that sort—complete with a capable handle and effective post game that help him fill out the box score. (Last year: No. 32)

+ Talented, fluid passer who can make smart reads on the move
+ Great hands: In the Kawhi Leonard range in steal %
Had a down shooting season (31.9%) from the three-point line, couldn’t punish defenses for leaving him
In good, crowded company in that he can’t really guard LeBron James

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

For a couple of years now, the “NBA’s best point guards” discussion has tended to turn into a game of rock-paper-scissors after the clear-cut top three: Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. Last season, though, Kyle Lowry (21.2 PPG, 6.4 APG, 4.7 RPG, 2.1 SPG) made a very compelling case that he deserved the fourth spot, no questions asked. A far better shooter than John Wall, a far better defender than Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving, and a far more dynamic scorer than Mike Conley, the 30-year-old Lowry firmed up his all-around credentials the old-fashioned way: by winning. After two straight years of frustrating early exits from the playoffs, Lowry shook off his shooting slumps to lead a “good but not great” Raptors roster to the Eastern Conference finals. While Lowry doesn’t possess Wall’s athleticism, or Lillard’s deep range, or Irving’s handle, or Conley’s playoff experience, he almost certainly possesses the fewest weaknesses among this group. Given his age and the fact that he’s at or very near his ceiling, Lowry probably won’t crack the seemingly impenetrable top three at his position. That’s fine, so long as he gets his due for being at the forefront of the loaded second tier. (Last year: No. 34)

+ Ranked in the top five among point guards in PER, Win Shares, Real Plus Minus, points per game and steals 
+ Earned All-NBA honors for the first time while also lifting Toronto to a franchise-best 56 wins and its first trip to the conference finals
His 38.3 FG% in the playoffs is the second-lowest among active players with at least 500 attempts
Turned 30 in March, logged huge minutes each of the last three seasons, and battled nagging injuries down the stretch in 2014–15 and 2015–16

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

It’s difficult to remember the last time an NBA star rode a Dickensian pendulum quite as dramatically as Draymond Green has over the past 12 months. The 26-year-old Green was one of the driving forces behind the most successful regular-season team in history, a hybrid big man whose skillset  and ultra-high motor defy comparison. In fact, his overall stat line—14/9/7/1/1—has not been matched in all five categories in NBA history, and the closest all-around comparison is Larry Bird during his 1987 MVP season. But the “best of times” gave way to a staggering crash: multiple postseason incidents, two terrible no-shows in Oklahoma City, a suspension during the Finals, a team-wide collapse to lose the Finals, an arrest, a truly unfortunate Snapchat mishap, and a seat on the bench for most of the Rio Olympics. While the successful recruitment of Kevin Durant obviously prevented his “worst of times” summer from being a total nightmare, Green managed to undo some of the substantial progress made last season. Instead of entering 2016–17 riding high, he faces questions both new and old. Can he keep his cool? Can he compensate defensively for the departures of centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli? Is he willing to take a step back offensively to accommodate Durant’s arrival? Why did he look so lost and unhelpful in Rio? Green has made it clear that he thrives on doubters. Now he will spend this season making amends and chasing revenge rather than pursuing a three-peat. (Last year: No. 16)

+ League-leading +1,070 raw plus-minus was the highest mark posted in the last 20 years
+ Career-high 598 assists last season led all frontcourt players, including LeBron
Ranked No. 3 with 13 regular-season technical fouls, first with five in the postseason and tied for first with three postseason flagrant fouls
After logging the most minutes of any player in the 2016 playoffs, he played just 78 total minutes over eight games in Rio

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

The DeMarcus Cousins era in Sacramento continues to inspire awe and pity. Cousins, 26, had a statistical year for the ages last season (27/12/3/1/1), an all-around stat-stuffing that earned him a spot alongside Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the record books. And yet those monster numbers weren’t enough, nor were they even close to enough. Once again, like clockwork, the Kings failed to assembled enough talent to be competitive, then struggled through locker room and chemistry issues, then dumped their coach, and then used their lottery pick on a center, leaving Cousins to stew in his frustration at every step of this familiar journey. Eventually, something will have to break this cycle. But what will it be? Will Cousins hold up for 82 games and carry the Kings to the postseason in Herculean fashion? Will a Kings coach, perhaps Dave Joerger, finally stumble upon some successful lineup combinations around Cousins? Will Vivek Ranadive and Vlade Divac luck into some good moves on the “Even a broken clock is right twice a day” principle? Will one of Cousins’s teammates unexpectedly break out, giving him the help he’s so desperately needed? Or, will Sacramento finally cave to fears that Cousins might leave as a free agent down the road and trade him to the highest bidder? At this point, it doesn’t matter all that much how this story changes, just that it does. (Last year: No. 14)

+ His 35.4 usage rate last season was the highest posted by a center since the stat was recorded (per Basketball-Reference), and he led the Kings in points, rebounds, blocks, free throw attempts, turnovers, fouls, PER, Win Shares and Defensive Rating
+ A shift to the perimeter under former coach George Karl allowed him show off his guard skills: His 512 drives led all centers (no other center had 150)
Led the NBA with 17 technical fouls in 2015–16 and has ranked in the top five in each of the last six NBA seasons 
He’s the only player in the top 22 of this year’s list that has yet to reach the playoffs

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

Never underestimate the composite value of a consistent shot creator who plays effective team defense. There are players ranked behind Aldridge on this list who are independently better at offense or defense. Where he distinguishes himself is in conceding so little: Aldridge is a first-option scorer who rebounds well, holds up defensively, and maximizes his possessions by avoiding turnovers. He can’t really be exploited or attacked in any consistent way and his game—by virtue of the fact that he already shoots and makes so many difficult, mid-range shots—isn’t particularly vulnerable to scheming. That immutability matters. Every team in the NBA is a blend of variables that players and coaches do their best to account for. To have a stabilizing certainty in the middle of everything makes the entire process simpler. Aldridge grants that, and in the process alleviates lesser offensive players from overstretch. The fact that he moves and contests well defensively—even if not well enough to anchor a defense himself—keeps possessions from falling apart. It’s not just Aldridge’s production that stabilizes a team but the very way that he operates. San Antonio will lean on that quality as it makes sense of a present and future without Tim Duncan. Kawhi Leonard is San Antonio’s best player. But it’s Aldridge who offers the groundwork for a franchise’s redefinition and helps stabilize the transition from one era to the next. (Last year: No. 12)

+ Game suited for either isolation or more fluid ball/player movement
+ Contributor to a historically great team defense last season
Has good size but offers flimsy rim protection
Not always a positive cultural influence

Thursday September 15th, 2016

This year’s forgotten man in the superstar class in Blake Griffin, whose nightmare 2015-16 season included 47 missed games, an ugly and costly off-court incident, and a postseason run that was abruptly cut short in the first round when both he and Chris Paul suffered season-ending injuries in the same game. The 27-year-old Griffin will enter camp this fall having not been at full health since Christmas 2015, his longest stretch away from the game since he lost his entire rookie season to a knee injury in 2009. Griffin (21.4 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 4.9 APG) will return as one of the top prospective 2017 free agents, a multitalented forward whose quick, explosive game around the basket has been supplemented in recent years by an active and sophisticated playmaking game that makes use of his basketball intelligence and ball skills. As he’s steadily drifted away from the basket area, to preserve his body and improve his team’s spacing, Griffin has relied more heavily on his improved, but still not lethal, mid-range jumper and his ability to create scoring opportunities with the dribble or pass after squaring up against his man. Although he’s yet to truly experiment with a three-point shot and he’s not a true rim-protector, he remains firmly in the “NBA’s best power forwards” conversation. The five-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA selection returns to the court this fall fully rested, with a Clippers roster that didn’t sustain any truly debilitating off-season departures, and with a chip on his shoulder given how badly last season got away from him. A healthy, comfortable and motivated Griffin in a contract year? That’s still a truly frightening proposition. (Last year: No. 8)

+ Ranked second league-wide with 9.6 touches at the elbow per game. From this comfort zone, he’s a quadruple threat: shooter, playmaker, screen-setter and lob-tosser
+ Averaged 59.9 passes per game last season, second only to Draymond Green among frontcourt players
 Career-high 46% of his shots were long twos last season—a far higher share than LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki—and yet he connected on just 38.4%. Per Synergy Sports
Suspended four games by the Clippers after he broke his hand punching a team employee in January

Thursday September 15th, 2016

Basketball analysts of all kinds, ourselves included, are often guilty of treating offense and defense as discrete enterprises. Teams are discussed for their performance on either end without considering how the two might be related. Players are dissected in a way that can make every individual basketball skill seem separate from the others in application and concession. George, in particular, points out the flaw in that framework. How many players in the league are both their team’s primary shot creator and full-time defensive stopper? The only other certain qualifier (Kawhi Leonard) ranks just a few spots higher than George. So many others fall behind him because of the unique strain of that kind of dual role and what it means to carry it. Even those players who could take on both roles often don’t for the sake of conserving energy. That George is willing to makes it all the easier to build a winning team around him. A spot that might otherwise need a rare 3-and-D player could instead be filled with a shooting specialist. A lineup that might typically require a traditional rim protector could maybe get by with a more versatile big. A point guard who doesn’t quite have the skill set to run an offense full-time might seem suddenly viable alongside George and ready to contribute in other ways. George’s double-shift is a grind—so much so that it’s hard to really blame him when he settles for a pull-up jumper on what could be a hard drive. Those kinds of vices are just more excusable for a true, two-way player who can shift into superstar gear whenever his team needs him to be the best player on the floor. (Last year: No. 20)

+ Came back from major injury into an immediate, big-minute role that removed all doubt 
+ One of the best rebounding wings in the league
Makes some impressive passes but too many wild ones
Handle can be a bit too loose to consistently get George where he needs to go

Thursday September 15th, 2016

Injuries to and around Davis have sloped his entire NBA career uphill. The circumstances are never quite right for the Pelicans to take off, though their baseline is always raised by having a skilled big of such extraordinary influence. Davis takes the appeal of a premier finisher and expands upon it—with a face-up game, ball skills, and a solid jumper. His mobility in itself is a weapon. No big in the league can navigate the floor as smoothly and effortlessly as Davis, which forces opposing bigs out of their normal scope of responsibility to track him wherever he goes. Davis can flutter through the lane and draw in several defenders only to curl out for a jumper when they finally exhale. Davis doesn’t dominate the ball in terms of time of possession but his presence is a consistent tax on the defense. Losing track of a player this tall, this bouncy, and this roundly capable will often end in disaster. Keep in mind that we still haven’t seen anything near the best of Davis, either. Not only will the 23-year-old naturally develop as he goes along, but Davis has spent long stretches of recent seasons operating alongside stopgap starters in cluttered lineups. Unsurprisingly, Davis’s game sang whenever he played with Jrue Holiday, who was New Orleans’s best playmaker last season by far. Working alongside Holiday got Davis more shot attempts at the rim and turned awkward, desperation jumpers into clean catch-and-shoot attempts. Davis doesn’t need a ton. Give him even the slightest bit of creative help and his production will pop. Bring him along in the right kind of defensive ecosystem and he’ll cover ground as effectively as any big in the league while swatting away anything within his incredible wingspan. (Last year: No. 3)

+ Transformative big who opens up the game for all around him
+ Scores at a superstar level (24.3 PPG) even while fleshing out his game
Still hasn’t quite made the most of his defensive potential
Various injuries have forced Davis to miss at least 20% of his team’s regular season games

Thursday September 15th, 2016

Houston might have endured a disappointing and demoralizing 2015–16 season that opened with a quick coaching change and ended with a quick postseason exit, but James Harden made sure he got his. Did he ever. The 27-year-old Harden (29 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 7.5 APG) posted career-highs in minutes, shots, usage rate, points, rebounds, assists and free throw attempts, pushing his all-around production to historic levels and raising the age-old “How much is too much?” question that often dogs one-man offenses. There were obvious costs to Harden’s insane workload: his defensive numbers fell dramatically, Houston’s attack was too predictable and stood no chance against Golden State’s defense in the playoffs, and neglected center Dwight Howard bounced out of town as soon as possible in free agency. Still, his elite one-on-one feel, his league-leading ability to get to the line, his reliable three-point range and his strong finishing ability make him able to carry an efficient offense in a way matched by only the league’s brightest stars. So it came as no great surprise, then, when the Rockets spent this summer building out an offensive-minded roster in his image before inking him to a lucrative renegotiated extension that will carry him through July 2019 at minimum. He’s the whole show, and a damn good one despite his faults. (Last year: No. 5)

+ Since 1970, only two players have matched his 2015–16 production (29 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 7.5 APG) in all three categories: LeBron James (2008, 2010) and Michael Jordan (1989)
+ Career-high 837 free throw attempts were the most by a guard since Michael Jordan attempted 860 in 1988
He slipped from the 79th percentile in overall defense in 2014–15 to the 18th percentile last season (per Synergy Sports)
 Heavy miles: In the four seasons since his 2012 arrival in Houston, he ranks first in total minutes played, second in field goal attempts and eighth in usage rate league-wide

Thursday September 15th, 2016

The back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year ranked in the 99th percentile in overall offense by Synergy Sports. Read that sentence back again so that it fully sinks in. Yes, Kawhi Leonard made another gigantic leap in 2015–16, elevating his offensive game for the fifth straight season, earning his first All-Star and All-NBA First Team selections, and launching him into the pool of perennial MVP candidates for years to come. The 25-year-old Leonard’s improvement has been maniacal: Last season, he set new career-highs in minutes, points, assists, three-point percentage, Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares, while just barely missing out on joining the vaunted 50/40/90 shooting club. Oh, yeah, he also led all perimeter players in Defensive Real Plus Minus and guided the Spurs to the fourth-stingiest defensive rating of the past decade. And, by the way, even though Tim Duncan was on one leg and headed for retirement, Leonard helped the Spurs win 67 games, four more than their previous franchise best. Honestly, this gushing can go on and on, depending on how carefully you want to read through the valedictorian’s transcript. Leonard averaged more than one point per possession in all of the following offensive scenarios last season: spot up, post-up, transition, using screens, using hand offs, cuts, putbacks, and as both the ball-handler and the roll man in pick-and-rolls. If you can invent a new method for putting the ball in the basket, Leonard will surely master it. Defensively, the drill down renders similarly pristine results. Step back from the situational breakdowns and there are still areas for potential improvement: Leonard can do more as a play-maker for others, and he didn’t exert quite enough authority during San Antonio’s last two postseasons. Odds are, he’s in a gym right now figuring out to take those next steps. While perfection might be an unattainable ideal, few if any players chase it with as much vigor and demonstrable progress as Leonard. (Last year: No. 11)

+ Posted career-highs in Player Efficiency Rating and True Shooting % despite taking on additional offensive responsibilities that spiked his usage rate and shots to career-high levels. In fact, his 61.6 TS% on 25.8% Usage was topped by only two players: Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant
+ Ranked in the top six in Player Efficiency Rating (6th), Win Shares (4th), Real Plus Minus (5th) and 82Games.com’s “Simple Rating” (4th)  
His 2.8 assists per 36 minutes places him well below fellow elite wings like LeBron, Durant and Paul George 
He has missed 10 or more games in each of the last four seasons, although some of his absences were for strategic resting purposes

Thursday September 15th, 2016

If you’re bothered by Westbrook’s placement here relative to a certain Clippers point guard’s​ ranking at No. 4, I’d encourage you to read that post for a detailed examination of what separates these two superstars. How does one even attempt to stop Russell Westbrook? Defenders who have backed off and given him space are generally run over. Those that give his drives the attention they deserve are often burned by his passing. Showing resistance at the rim sometimes only serves to send Westbrook to the line (7.8 free throw attempts per game, seventh in the league) to bolster his efficiency. Attempts to bait him into bad shots or bad passes can so easily backfire; there are real risks to getting too cute with the coverage of a player who can blow by or rise over most any defender put in front of him. Quicker opponents can be taken into the post and overpowered. Longer ones often can’t move their feet fast enough to put that length to use. This is the fundamental quandary that every one of Westbrook’s opponents must confront. The speed at which Westbrook operates demands the tailoring of a defensive system to stop him. Otherwise, the rotations might not come in time or might come in too eager numbers, leaving open shooters and dunkers for Westbrook to pick out. That Westbrook repeats this process, again and again, over full minutes for an entire season is exhausting to opponents. You will not catch Westbrook on his night off because there are no nights off. There is only the constant need to focus, to shuffle, to communicate, and to batten down the hatches. (Last year: No. 7)

+ Ranked second in the league in adjusted assists (a total of assists, secondary assists, and free throw assists)
The league’s preeminent rebounding guard. Posted a similar total rebounding percentage last season to Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo
Freelancing defender who doesn’t pay much attention to the details
Not the best finisher around the basket, in part due to the volume and difficulty of his drives

Thursday September 15th, 2016

One of the most agonizing debates in our process was Chris Paul vs. Russell Westbrook. Here were some of the factors that ultimately favored Paul:

• Control vs. explosion: Paul and Westbrook approach running an offense so differently that much of their distinction is a matter of taste. Paul is the sort of ball handler who manages everything; his job involves constant orchestration. His moves to score are deliberate. Paul knows how to pick his spots to score as much as is needed of him while still keeping all of his teammates involved in the exact spots that are best for their games. The way that Paul thinks the game and physically makes his passes (from misdirection to timing to placement) is pretty damn close to the playmaking ideal. It’s a reliable, dependable structure that can easily bear the weight of an entire offense. The same could essentially be said of Westbrook’s raw production, given that no individual defender nor team system can really stop him. Yet in deciding between the two styles, we felt Paul’s brand of cerebral playmaking both made more sense for a wider variety of teams and gave his teammates more room to work through necessary playoff adjustment. 

• Defense: This is an open-and-shut case: Paul is a better defender. The more pertinent issue is how much better and to what extent it matters. Paul’s first team All-Defense selection in each of the last five years feels like a bit of an overstatement; as can happen with that particular award, star players who defend well benefit from a categorical bump. That said, the fact that he’s at all a reasonable candidate for that kind of defensive distinction moves him miles away from Westbrook, whose best defensive quality is his activity. The kind of instinctive, assertive defense that Westbrook defaults to can be smothering on the right night and self-destructive on many others. His lunges for steals constantly pull him out of good defensive position, forcing teammates to step up and contain the threats left behind. There are also moments in every game in which Westbrook, weirdly, can’t be bothered. It’s that variety of issues that makes matters worse. These just aren't issues with Paul.

• Shooting: Not only does Paul take better shots, but he shoots a better percentage at literally every distance. The gap is that between one of the game’s most reliable pull-up jump shooters (Paul manages to weave through multiple defenders before twisting into a shot with perfect balance) and one of its most erratic—not to mention indulgent.

• Trust: One question we kept coming back to in our comparison: If you were a coach of an NBA team, who would you trust to run your team? Paul was the consensus choice. Westbrook wouldn’t be Westbrook without the thrills. That makes for great television and great basketball, but it’s often easier to get the most out of all five players on the floor when they can move and operate along a particular set of principles. Westbrook doesn’t totally deny that, though a certain part of his value lies in his unpredictability. A point guard who can blow past his man at any time can always keep the defense off-balance, though in a sense he does something similar to his teammates. The majority of the time this is not a real problem; Westbrook is productive enough—and the openings he creates are obvious enough—to keep an offense afloat. Yet it’s implicit in Westbrook’s game that he will shrug off a certain number of plays as they develop for a quick, pull-up jumper. In some cases, that all comes out in the wash. In others, those shots not only bust a possession with an ineffective shot (Westbrook made just 37% of his pull-up jumpers last season, 42.3% eFG), but give opponents a look in transition when all of Westbrook’s teammates’ may be cutting and screening below the foul line. A lot goes into trusting that a player’s performance will do the most good for the team, but Paul had enough edges to help win us over.

It would be perfectly reasonable to digest all of Westbrook’s limitations and still rank him as the superior player. His play is that persuasive. We simply saw Paul as more balanced, more reliable, and more stylistically contributive to the success of his teammates. (Last year: No. 6)

+ The most efficient high-usage pick-and-roll player in the league last season
+ Independently ranked in the top three in assists leading to three-pointers, dunks, and free throws
Can be worn down physically if his minutes and responsibilities aren’t minded
Has a megalomaniacal streak that can sometimes rub teammates the wrong way

Thursday September 15th, 2016

Curry was unequivocally the best player in basketball last year. He took what was the best shooting season in league history and blew it out of the water—in part by taking the range of a plausible jumper to terrifying new depths and in part by obliterating his own three-point record (by 116 makes!) to hit 402 in total. For reference: None among Carmelo Anthony, Bradley Beal, Draymond Green, and Jeff Teague even hit 116 threes (which, again, is only the margin by which Curry outpaced his own all-time mark) all last season. The reigning Most Valuable Player had a compelling case as the league’s Most Improved Player, which is particularly insane when considering the scaling difficulty of improvement at the highest levels of stardom. Along the way, Curry was the self-evident best player on the winningest team in NBA history and showed how many considerable, tangential benefits can be drawn from the way he drives. Clear career bests in shots taken at the rim, free throw attempts, and team offensive efficiency showed the contrast of a great player becoming that much greater—a fact made all the more pronounced by the way Curry’s game changed following his postseason knee injury. We didn’t hold Curry’s injured performance against him too much, though the way his game down-shifts when he isn’t fully able to separate and drive is worth noting. A fully healthy Curry is the game’s most fearsome offensive player. A limited one is still a superstar-level contributor, albeit confined to certain applications and spaces on the court. Curry’s defense, too, while not a problem in any kind of consistent sense, created a wedge between him and Kevin Durant. Those two Warriors teammates are both magnificent offensive players. But within the context of difficult matchups, Curry is the kind of defender a team moves off the ball as to protect him. Durant is the kind of a defender that a team moves in to help contain opponents like Curry. That advantage means even more in a vacuum; Curry’s shooting (and all that comes from it) would travel incredibly well across teams and systems, but Durant’s scoring, size, and defensive flexibility make him slightly more portable. You can read more on that specific comparison in the section below. Of this we can be sure: Curry belongs at basketball’s summit, squarely in the same tier as those two stars above him. There is no argument to the contrary. (Last year: No. 4)

+ Outstanding clutch performer; forced road crowds into more awestruck gasps and deflated sighs than any other player last season 
+ Lead the NBA in True Shooting Percentage, making Curry the first player ever to do so while attempting 20+ shots a game
A solid system defender at best, exploitable at worst
Hunger for the big play can lead to some painful, inopportune turnovers (See: Game 7, 2016 NBA Finals)

Thursday September 15th, 2016

The toughest call in this year’s rankings came down to two Golden State teammates: Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. There are many quality arguments in Curry’s favor: he is the back-to-back MVP, he averaged more points, he shot more efficiently, he drove a more efficient offense, he led the first 73-win team in NBA history, and he posted better marks in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares and Real Plus Minus. And, by the way, his Warriors defeated Durant’s Thunder in the Western Conference finals and then Durant decided to leave the only franchise he’s ever known to roll with the winners. That’s a lot of good reasons. Opting for Durant over Curry came down to four main counterarguments. First, Durant moved cleanly past his foot injury issues from 2014–15, logging big minutes in the regular season and in the postseason. Curry, by contrast, was limited by multiple injuries during the playoffs, and he was clearly not the same player in May and June as he was during his scintillating regular season. Second, Durant put together a strong defensive season, showing meaningful progress in the advanced numbers. While Curry is an improved and underrated defender, he lacks Durant’s length, which impacts plays at the rim, and his versatility. Third, Durant is himself an exceptionally efficient and ruthless scorer, and one who has generally faced a greater degree of difficulty given the talent and systems around him in Oklahoma City than Curry has under Steve Kerr over the last two seasons. Perhaps the single most exciting reason to watch the NBA this season is to see what Durant is capable of once he’s immersed in a smart, unselfish and balanced attack. Finally, Durant’s size and two-way positional versatility give him an edge over Curry in the “vacuum” test. If starting a team from scratch, it would seemingly be easier to use Durant as the cornerstone because he covers more bases and brings more flexibility to the table. The best part about this debate, however, is that it will eventually be settled on the court. (Last year: No. 2)

+ During his nine-year Thunder tenure, Oklahoma City never ranked higher than No. 15 in assist ratio and twice ranked dead last in the NBA. This year, he is set to join a Golden State team that has ranked first in assist ratio in each of the last two seasons
+ Only one player since 1972 has matched his 2015–16 production (28.2 PPG/8.2 RPG/5 APG) in all three categories: Larry Bird (1985, 1987, and 1988) 
Up 3–1 in the West finals against Golden State, he shot 39.5% overall and 26.9% from deep over the final three games of the series as Oklahoma City lost in seven
His ThePlayersTribune.com essay announcing his Warriors decision lacked an authentic voice and a clear explanation of his decision-making process

Thursday September 15th, 2016

Although LeBron James tops our list for the fourth straight time, it must be noted that a new king was nearly crowned. But just as his Heat narrowly staved off the Spurs in the 2013 Finals, James held on to the No. 1 spot thanks to a postseason run that went beyond brilliant and a Finals performance that went beyond historic. 

For years, SI’s guiding mantra for the top spot of this list has been, “Make the new guy earn it.” As recently as June, and certainly in April, it seemed like Stephen Curry had done just that by supplanting James from the top spot of the Player Efficiency Rating tables, by pulling in more All-Star votes, by claiming his second straight MVP (this time in unanimous fashion), by winning 73 games, and by establishing himself as a revolutionary anomaly with his record-setting three-point shooting. James (25.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 6.8 APG, 1.4 SPG) might be the more conventionally complete player, SI’s thinking went at the time, but Curry’s breakthrough rendered conventions irrelevant. Curry, it seemed, had snatched the baton from James a few years before he was ready to hand it off. 

Then, over three breathtaking weeks in June, James snatched it all back. Yes, he had help: Curry was less than 100% healthy, Draymond Green did him a huge solid midway through the Finals, Klay Thompson and Marreese Speights made the mistake of poking the bear, and Kyrie Irving came up huge when it mattered most. 

As the decades pass, those details will be slowly forgotten by history. What will endure is James’s supremacy, expressed through his focus, his will, his athleticism, his intelligence, his indefatigability, his instincts, his gamesmanship, his leadership, and his resolve. Facing 2–0 and 3–1 deficits, James took his all-around game to the highest point of his career, lapping the competition in every meaningful statistical category and carrying a cursed city to its first championship in 52 years. His play during the 2015 Finals had been the extraordinary act of a man fighting an unwinnable battle to the bitter end. One year later, his play in the 2016 Finals was the extraordinary act of a man winning an unwinnable battle, and it will be remembered forever as his masterpiece. 

James dotted the Cavaliers’ comeback with enduring moments that strengthened his case as the top talent in basketball. He emphatically blocked Curry’s shot and then sneered at his rival. He magically pulled his “broken” three-pointer out of his hat, draining four threes in Game 5 and three in Game 6. And then he produced the single most memorable highlight of his career, racing from beyond half-court to smash an Andre Iguodala lay-up off the glass and silence the Oracle crowd in Game 7. After that final stretch of three games—when James went for 41 points back-to-back and then closed out the title with a triple-double—this year’s debate was over. (Last year: No. 1)

+ He ranked No. 1 in Real Plus-Minus during the regular season and No. 1 in raw plus-minus in the postseason. During the Finals, he famously led all players on both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks—the first time that had ever happened—en route to his third career Finals MVP award   
+ Down 3–1 in the Finals, he responded by posting the following stat lines in Games 5, 6 and 7, all Cleveland wins: 41P/16R/7A/3S/3B, 41P/8R/11A/4S/3B and 27P/11R/11A/2S/3B
His 38,478 career minutes stand as the most ever by a player through his age-31 season
He shot just 30.9% on threes during the regular season and 34% during the playoffs; His 58.8 True Shooting % remained well below his Heat-era peak levels for the second straight season

 

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