Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: A look back at SI.com's top 100 players of 2014 list, which was published in September. What's changed over the last three-plus months? (All stats and records are through Jan. 8.)
1. After seeing almost half of the 2013-14 reagular season, which player is now the most overrated on the top 100 list?
Ben Golliver: The trickiest aspects of annual list-making are predicting breakouts, foreseeing age-related declines and deciding how to deal with injured players. The two players who were ranked the highest and have done the least are obviously Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (No. 9) and Bulls guard Derrick Rose (No. 12). But injuries are clearly the determining factor for both, and that should exclude them from the "overrated" tag. Ditto for Bucks center Larry Sanders (No. 43) and Lakers guard Steve Nash (No. 54), who have both barely played, although Sanders' thumb injury was self-inflicted so perhaps he should be considered a strong candidate.
If we limit the scope of responses to players who have failed to live up to their rankings while being available for a majority of their team's games, the clear answer is Nets forward Kevin Garnett (No. 28). An All-Atrocious Team selection, Garnett, 37, has had his lunch handed to him by Father Time this season after being an All-Star and an All-Defensive-type player for the Celtics last year. Playing for first-year coach Jason Kidd hasn't made life any easier. “The most frustrating thing about me is I could see if I wasn’t hitting shots and I wasn’t in here working or taking (expletive) days off,” Garnett admitted recently. “I put time into my craft for it to come out, but then that’s rhythm on offense. And I don’t have that right now.”
When it goes, it goes fast. Garnett's unsightly numbers -- 6.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 37.9 percent shooting, an 11.4 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), a minus-3.4 net rating, a bottom-five Brooklyn defense -- reflect the scope of his age-related cliff-diving. If we re-drafted this list right now, Garnett would not be a candidate for placement in the top 100, much less the top 30. The good news: Brooklyn has crawled back into the playoff picture despite a disastrous start, so perhaps Garnett's rough year will at least pay off with a postseason trip.
Rob Mahoney: Garnett is tough to top, but for me Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire (No. 85) stands out above the rubble. Desperation has led coach Mike Woodson to play Stoudemire more than intended, often to disastrous results. His scoring frequency has dipped sharply, from a somewhat surprising 21.8 points per 36 minutes in 2012-13 to just 16.7 points this season. Stoudemire is shooting only slightly less often but has conceded that difference through a drop in shooting percentage and a career-worst free throw rate.
All from the side of the floor that was supposed to be Stoudemire's strength. Over time, Stoudemire has devolved into an occasional catch-and-finish option rather than an offensive focal point, though it seemed conceivable that he could at least grow to be comfortable and effective in that slighter role. Even that seems to be asking too much, as Stoudemire is something of a last resort offensively, so marginalized that he no longer commands consistent defensive attention. That, combined with the Knicks' many, broader problems, has led to New York's scoring at an abysmal rate of 94.2 points per 100 possessions whenever Amar'e is on the floor -- 7.4 points worse than the team's season average.
On top of that, Stoudemire is as unreliable as ever on the glass and remains a truly problematic defender. That combination makes him difficult to manage over long stretches, and yet New York has leaned on Stoudemire for more than 22 minutes a game since December. It speaks volumes that even that allotment of playing time is too much.
2. Which player is now the most underrated on the top 100 list?
Golliver: I remember that Rob and I immediately had a strong sense of list-maker's remorse with Pelicans forward Anthony Davis' placement (No. 41), in the sense that we wanted him higher out of pure excitement for what was to come. Indeed, immediately after compiling the list, I pegged the 2012 No. 1 pick as the player I felt had the best chance to "significantly outperform" his ranking. Let's just say that things have come together nicely for him, minus a brief absence because of a hand injury.
The freakish per-minute benchmarks that Davis was hitting as a rookie in a somewhat limited role are scaling nicely during his sophomore year, now that he's playing nearly 35 minutes a game. Davis is averaging 19.2 points (on 52.6 percent shooting), 10.1 rebounds and a league-leading 3.1 blocks, and he ranks sixth in PER at 26.3 PER. He's one of just six players averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds, a list that includes Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, Warriors forward David Lee, Clippers forward Blake Griffin, Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge and Kings center DeMarcus Cousins. Keeping up with that company could help him squeak into the All-Star Game, depending on who is and isn't available because of injuries.
Perhaps even more impressive: Davis joins Shaquille O'Neal and Elton Brand as the only players to average 19-and-10 at age 20. Davis would jump into the top 25 at the very least in a re-draft, and he's surely headed for a spot in the top 10 -- and eventually the top five -- for years to come.
Mahoney: Suns guard Eric Bledsoe has decimated our reservations and climbed well beyond his initial ranking at No. 95. That's largely true because of Bledsoe's great leap forward as a shooter off the dribble -- a quality that had defined him previously and shaped the way that defenses covered him. The change has been dramatic: After shooting 31.5 percent from mid-range last season for the Clippers through set shots and the occasional pull-up, Bledsoe has climbed to 39.7 percent this year on a far more difficult assortment of attempts. That's quite an evolution to undergo in a single season, and with it Bledsoe has cleared room and angles to drive against defenders with little choice but to respect his jumper.
It also doesn't hurt that the Suns have unexpectedly given Bledsoe all that he needs to thrive. Guard Goran Dragic has been a terrific help in sharing Phoenix's playmaking load, to the point of disguising the Suns' sputtering when Bledsoe plays without him. Second-year big man Miles Plumlee has emerged from the depths of the Pacers' bench to be an impact player on a playoff team -- a reality that surpasses even the wildest expectations of his immediate performance. Channing Frye returned with gusto after sitting out a year with an enlarged heart and has done exquisitely as a stretchy, three-point-shooting big man to flesh out Phoenix's high pick-and-roll attack. Forward P.J. Tucker has broadened into a two-way player with his marksmanship from the corners, forward Gerald Green looks the part of an NBA player after imploding in Indiana last year, and forward Markieff Morris has tightened up his game to get to the basket more consistently and boost his efficiency.
All of the above -- not to mention first-year coach Jeff Hornacek's willingness to trust Bledsoe as a creator -- helped lay the groundwork for his fantastic season and offer a very optimistic view of what it means to have Bledsoe as a lead guard.
Next page: Biggest snubs, best shooting guard and new top 10 lists
3. Which top 100 snub is now the most glaring?
Golliver: Our list of potential omissions from September includes a number of good answers to this question: Magic guard Arron Afflalo, Wizards guard Bradley Beal and Warriors center Andrew Bogut, to name three. The best answer here, though, is a snubbed snub: Blazers guard Wesley Matthews. Yes, that's right: We left Matthews out of the top 100 and didn't include him on the snubs list either.
I recall that he merited a brief discussion for inclusion during the offseason, but was passed over in part because he had cultivated a reputation as a reliable, but unspectacular, complementary guard. The first two months of Matthews' season, however, have been nothing short of spectacular. He is second in the NBA with a 125 offensive rating, ranks third in true shooting percentage (63.1) and is enjoying career highs in scoring, rebounding, PER and the major shooting categories. He's always been a committed defender, and that hasn't changed this season, even with his scoring numbers on the rise.
His three-point shooting (42 percent on 6.5 attempts per game) has been the foundation for his off-the-charts efficiency numbers and a huge factor in Portland's top-ranked offense. But he's also expanded his post game and done well to limit his turnovers. Finding new ways to be effective -- and cutting out lots of the fat -- has helped him post big numbers without requiring more touches, allowing the ball movement that drives Portland's "flow" offense to remain intact.
Matthews' name has percolated in the discussion for Most Improved Player and he's performed at about as close to an All-Star level as a relatively anonymous player can get. Even if his shooting numbers regress down the stretch of the season, Matthews should head into the 2014-15 season as a top-50ish candidate.
Mahoney: In addition to Afflalo and Beal, I'll give due to Indiana's Lance Stephenson -- a wild player who has focused his game in all ther right ways this season. Ultimately, though, I'm giving the nod as the biggest snub to the aforementioned Bogut, who was omitted largely for injury concerns. If I can be so ridiculous as to quote myself:
In full and healthy form, Bogut is an easy inclusion in the top 100. But until he proves he can return to that level, Bogut has been too frequently out of the lineup to be depended on, to say nothing of his now-marginal offensive contributions.
Addressed on all counts. For starters, Bogut has played 37 of Golden State's 38 games and anchored the back line beautifully for a top-five defense. He's averaging a solid 27 minutes, very much in the vicinity of fellow difference-makers Tim Duncan, Nene and Tyson Chandler. It's possible that Bogut might never again play the 35.3 minutes he averaged in his last full season with the Bucks, but he doesn't have to. As long as he's on the floor consistently enough for the Warriors to develop defensive chemistry around him, he registers well into the top 100.
That Bogut's shooting percentage has skyrocketed from 45.1 to 62.8 only enhances his case. We're well beyond the point of Bogut's being a post-up force, or even much of an active participant in the Warriors' hot creation. But Bogut needs to be able to catch and finish (or catch and dish to an open shooter, as he often does) in order to punish defenses for overloading on Stephen Curry, and he has succeeded wildly in that regard this season.
4. Has the first half of 2013-14 proved James Harden to be the best shooting guard?
Golliver: The placement of Heat guard Dwyane Wade (No. 8) and Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (No. 9) over Rockets guard James Harden (No. 11) sparked a debate that wound up actually involving Wade, Harden, Thunder forward Kevin Durant and Rockets center Dwight Howard, among others. For now, I'm OK with Harden's moving past Bryant, who recovered from his Achilles injury only to go down again with a knee injury, but there's still no way I'd choose Harden over Wade.
The thrust of my Wade/Bryant-over-Harden thinking at the start of the year was that Harden needed to thoroughly outperform his elders if he wanted to unseat them. That just hasn't happened. Harden remains a reliable No. 1 scoring option and a phenomenal foul-drawer, but his much-maligned defense deserves all the criticism it has received, and more. He's also making less than a third of his three-pointers despite chucking up six per game. Wade continues to rank above him in PER, and their career list of accomplishments -- titles, All-Star Game appearances, etc. -- obviously aren't comparable because of the age difference.
Miami has carefully managed Wade's playing time, giving him nights off and using him just 33 minutes per game, and you can bet he will be a major factor again in the playoffs. Can we say the same thing about Harden? That remains to be seen. His Rockets have a good chance to finish among the West's top four, but I'd bet against a conference finals appearance. If things play out according to those expectations, Wade will almost certainly place above Harden on my list of top 100 players for 2015.
Mahoney: It's close between Wade and Harden, and any team would be lucky to have to make the choice between them. But, like Ben, I'm sticking with Wade for the moment. I'm not quite convinced of any reason to definitively prefer Harden.
There is no contest defensively. Wade might be lazy in transition, but in the half court he's far more attentive and competitive than Harden while doing more damage in the passing lanes. He also brings a quality to his help defense that few guards can match. Miami has built and sustained a unique defensive system around Chris Bosh's mobility coupled with Wade's and LeBron James' standout abilities in rotation. The very thought that a defense would be built around Harden is pretty laughable at this point. Houston has had trouble even when going out of its way to hide him on the less pressing threats available. That's half the game, and a half that doesn't reflect well on Harden in any capacity.
But even if we focus solely on the offensive end, Harden doesn't create enough of an advantage, if he has one at all. They have essentially identical usage rates for the season, making any direct comparison of production and efficiency more stable. Take a look:
Similar output on similar usage, all told, but Wade is the much more efficient shooter and Harden gets to the line with far greater frequency. Where in this comparison am I to see evidence of Harden's supremacy, particularly to a degree that would overcome his defensive disadvantage?
James inevitably gets pulled into this conversation because much of Wade's work comes alongside the MVP. According to NBA Wowy, though, Wade's effective field goal percentage slips only slightly (from 54.7 to 53.4) when James is off the floor -- still exceptional and still noticeably more efficient than Harden. Without James, Wade's assist and turnover numbers also improve modestly, further complicating the argument that playing alongside James would in any way mitigate his production or responsibility.
This is all quite silly, because again: Wade and Harden are magnificent players. But if I'm forced to pick between the two for a single season absent all other context, I'm still taking Wade.
5. Who are your top 10 players of the season so far?
Golliver: My new top 10, in order:
10. Stephen Curry
9. Kevin Love
8. Dwyane Wade
7. Tim Duncan
6. LaMarcus Aldridge
5. Paul George
4. Tony Parker
3. Chris Paul
2. Kevin Durant
1. LeBron James
The top four remain the same, in the same order, with Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant being excluded right now because of injury-related uncertainty. A healthy Westbrook still cracks the top five for me, and a healthy Bryant would be a top 10 guy. The biggest risers are George and Aldridge, who have been on the fringe of the MVP discussion and will make solid All-NBA team selections.
Bump up Love (No. 13) and Curry (No. 15) to replace Bryant and Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and that's a pretty nice list. Anthony, Harden and Clippers forward Blake Griffin fall just outside the top 10 cut line.
Mahoney: My new top 10:
10. James Harden
9. Tim Duncan
8. LaMarcus Aldridge
7. Dwyane Wade
6. Tony Parker
5. Kevin Love
4. Paul George
3. Chris Paul
2. Kevin Durant
1. LeBron James
Bryant wasn't much in play for me, but I ruled out Westbrook until we can see how and when he returns. Curry and Dwight Howard were both tough exclusions, and beyond them Anthony, Griffin and Dirk Nowitzki deserve honorable mentions.
George made the biggest jump into the top 10, leapfrogging a mess of quality players from his initial No. 25 ranking. Such is the gravity of meeting the superstar standard on offense. This season, only nine players have matched George's 17.2 shot attempts, and among them only Kevin Durant has posted a higher effective field goal percentage. To broach that volume while also making huge gains in efficiency is an incredible achievement, particularly for a well-rounded player who was already exceptional on defense.
|Top 100 NBA Players (originally published back in September)|