SI.com's Top 100 NBA Players of 2016
SI.com is proud to offer our list of the Top 100 NBA players of 2016, an exhaustive exercise that seeks to define who will be the league's best players in the 2015-16 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 statistics and advanced measures like Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, Real Plus-Minus, WARP, Net Rating and Synergy Sports data. 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, while the influence of team context was minimized to whatever extent was possible. Our sole concern was how players are likely to perform this season alone.
Injuries and injury risks are thus an inevitable component of that judgment, and chronic concerns or repetitive absences earned demerits. Past performance (postseason included) weighed heavily in our assessment, with a skew toward the recent. First-year players—including delayed rookies like Sixers center Joel Embiid—were not included for that reason, among others. A predictive quality 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, even in those instances below where a contract is mentioned. Otherwise, players were ordered based on their complete games—offense and defense both, along with everything in between.
Naturally, 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—in many cases based on extremely minor differences. For those interested in understanding more about the ranking process and the limitations of this exercise in general, make a quick detour here.
100100Giannis AntetokounmpoBucks | Forward | Last year: —
Because it has happened in front of our eyes, one galloping coast-to-coast drive at a time, it’s easy to overlook just how quickly Giannis Antetokounmpo made the leap from “long-term project” to “quality contributor.” Although Antetokounmpo won’t turn 21 until December, he logged 2,541 minutes in 2014–15, fourth-most among NBA players under 22 years of age. He also ranked in the top 10 among small forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, no easy task for a second-year player. Together, that qualifies as instant impact for the East’s No. 6 playoff seed, not the “upside and potential” that was expected when Milwaukee plucked him from the Greek second division in the 2013 draft.
Antetokounmpo’s length and versatility are his defining characteristics, and he finds a natural home in coach Jason Kidd’s pressure-heavy defense, which surprisingly ranked No. 2 in the league last season. There’s still plenty of room for refinement on the offensive end: his shooting range extends, well, about one long arm’s length from the rim, and he hasn’t yet developed into a credible threat in isolation situations or pick-and-rolls. Given his ability to scale his per-minute production and improve his shooting efficiency last season, the Bucks have every reason to believe that Antetokounmpo is headed for even bigger things in Year 3. His real explosion has yet to come. – B.G.
2014-15: 12.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, 49.1FG%, 15.9 3P%
Advanced: 14.8 PER, Win Shares: 6.2, +0.87 RPM
99Wesley MatthewsMavs | Guard | Last year: 72
There are plenty of good reasons that the Mavericks defied conventional wisdom by making perhaps the off-season’s boldest bet on Wesley Matthews: his work ethic is beyond reproach, he’s a natural locker room leader, he perfectly fits the coveted high-volume 3-and-D prototype, and he has meaningful playoff experience under his belt as he approaches what should be his prime years. There’s a chance that Dallas gets its money’s worth over the course of Matthews’s four-year, $70 million contract, but it will require the 6’5’’ shooting guard to fully recover from an Achilles tear he suffered in March ... quickly.
Throughout his career, which saw him spend the last five seasons as a starter in Portland, the undrafted Matthews has gotten by more on determination rather than pure athleticism. It’s not yet clear how the first major injury of his pro tenure will impact his game. Will he still be quick enough laterally to stick with elite ball-handlers? Will he be able to compensate for some of the drive-and-kick that Dallas loses with Monta Ellis’s departure, or will he be forced to transition his offensive game into even more of a spot-up approach? Will he be able to move freely off the ball to generate clean looks on one end while chasing lead scorers through endless screens on the other? While Matthews has been incredibly optimistic about returning early in the 2015–16 season, history suggests that the Mavericks might need to wait until at least 2016–17 to enjoy his full production. For that reason, he slots on this list roughly 30 spots below where he would have been if fully healthy. – B.G.
2014-15: 15.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 44.8 FG%, 38.9 3P%
Advanced: 16.1 PER, Win Shares: 6.2, +3.65 RPM
98Donatas MotiejunasRockets | Forward | Last year: —
One of the better teams in the West lost Dwight Howard for 41 games last season and survived the fallout to claim the No. 2 seed. Motiejunas was a crucial reason why; not only did the third-year big man perform admirably within Houston’s team defense, but his post work helped carry the Rockets in those moments when James Harden needed relief. Already Motiejunas is a starting-caliber big who could help in a variety of roles, including as a floor spacer from the corners. Were it not for the fact he rebounds like a wing, Motiejunas would have a compelling case to climb up this list based on his game’s balance. To be a two-way player at 7-feet tall gives Motiejunas a rare, compelling appeal. – R.M.
2014-15: 12.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.8 APG, 50.4 FG%, 36.8 3P%
Advanced: 14.4 PER, Win Shares: 4.7, +0.09 RPM
97Nerlens Noel76ers | Forward | Last year: —
Over the course of his rookie season, Noel evolved from an empty void of an offensive player to an occasionally helpful one. That shift was enough to let the now 21-year-old’s strengths on defense shine through to top 100 standing. Very rarely do rookies actually help their teams on defense, an area of the game where the only means of consistent success is earned acumen. Noel stands as an exception. Despite his age and inexperience, Noel averaged better than two steals and two blocks per 36 minutes while terrorizing opponents from the three-point line in. Rim protectors have no business being this quick on their feet. That Noel defies the standard allows him to reject shots with lightning-bolt fury and dart outside to repel guards as needed. – R.M.
2014-15: 9.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 46.2 FG%
Advanced: 15.0 PER, Win Shares: 4.0, -1.50 RPM
96Josh SmithClippers | Forward | Last year: 53
A certain amount of noise tends to follow Smith wherever he goes with most of it snark and sneering in regard to his obvious shortcomings. Smith will take certain shots he shouldn’t and throw passes out of bounds as if he were meeting some kind of turnover quota. Yet on balance he’s still the kind of player who made a good Rockets defense far better while diversifying Houston’s offense with his playmaking, finishing ability, and streaky shooting from beyond the arc (34.5% as a Rocket between the regular season and playoffs). There’s more than enough game here—punctuated by 16.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes—to warrant working through the headaches that Smith might induce. – R.M.
READ MOREalign: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
95Roy HibbertLakers | Center | Last year: 52
What’s more damning: That the Pacers posted a better defensive rating in 2014–15 without Roy Hibbert (100.7) than with him (101.1), or that they traded the two-time All-Star center to the Lakers this summer for the NBA equivalent of zilch (a future second-round pick)? Neither fact reflects kindly on Hibbert, the former Defensive Player of the Year contender who played an integral role on Indiana’s back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and 2014, but who has also dealt with confidence issues and inconsistency throughout his seven-year career.
Pacers president Larry Bird ultimately concluded this summer that Hibbert’s signature rim-protection wasn’t enough to overcome his extremely limited offensive game, his no-show nights on the glass, his lack of agility and versatility, and his sometimes perplexing personality. The sexy small-ball revolution only looks like more salt in the wounds for this 7’2’’ behemoth. As he enters a contract year in L.A., Hibbert won’t only be fending off Kobe Bryant’s constant glares and working through his own mental baggage, he’ll also be fighting to prove that traditional big men aren’t quite ready to cede the floor to undersized, multi-positional talents.
In a best-case scenario, Hibbert rebuilds his market value by resurrecting a pathetic Lakers defense that has (almost) nowhere to go but up after ranking No. 29 last year. Indeed, if the Lakers make any meaningful progress protecting the paint, he should be the first in line—and perhaps the only one in line—to get the credit, and another rich contract will likely be waiting come July. In a (more likely) worst-case scenario, Hibbert’s own physical limitations and matchup problems, the total lack of credible defensive players around him, and the questionable stewardship of Byron Scott combine to turn Hibbert into a gigantic punching bag during another dreadful campaign. This same organization just chewed up and spit out Dwight Howard, so there’s plenty of reason to doubt that the less-gifted Hibbert will thrive under the scrutiny. – B.G.
2014-15: 10.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 44.6 FG%
Advanced: 15.4 PER, Win Shares: 4.2, -0.01 RPM
94Reggie JacksonPistons | Guard | Last year: —
Including Reggie Jackson on this list is, admittedly, a speculative decision. Detroit’s new $80 million point guard has posted a decidedly mediocre track record during his four-year career, spent largely as Russell Westbrook’s backup, and the Thunder seemed to lose little sleep in trading him to the Pistons at the deadline. Finding something that Jackson, 25, has mastered requires real straining: he’s not an efficient outside shooter, he’s not an above-average finisher in the basket area, he’s not a standout when it comes to drawing fouls, he’s not a plus defender, and he’s not the world’s most natural playmaker for others.
So why did Stan Van Gundy hitch his wagon to Jackson, emptying the bank vault in the process? Because he needs a pick-and-roll point guard to initiate his spread offense and get the most out of franchise center Andre Drummond. Jackson looked up to those tasks in averaging 17.6 points and 9.2 assists after the trade. Detroit posted a strong 106.9 offensive rating with Jackson on the court, and the Jackson/Drummond pairing posted a +4.4 net rating in nearly 700 minutes together, albeit in mostly meaningless games down the stretch of a lottery-bound season. If a revamped Pistons roster can build on those narrow successes and push into the 2016 playoff chase, Jackson’s middling reputation should be in line for a boost. – B.G.
2014-15: 14.5 PPG, 6.0 APG, 4.2 RPG, 43.4 FG%, 29.9 3P%
Advanced: 17.2 PER, Win Shares: 4.9, +1.18 RPM
93J.J. RedickClippers | Guard | Last year: 93
Redick just completed the best season of his career at age 30: An impressive campaign of intuitive offense and competitive defense that made him a perfect complement for stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The bulk of Redick’s work is done on the periphery. He leads his man on a full-speed chase around successive screens, if only to occupy a potential helper and buy himself an extra moment to shoot should the ball come his way. That Redick so seamlessly transitions from those curls and cuts into textbook shooting form is a testament to his preparation. Footwork and mechanics separate Redick from so many others who share his trade, enabling him to shoot 44% on three-pointers with a defender closing in and little time to spare. – R.M.
2014-15: 16.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, 47.7 FG%, 43.7 3P%
Advanced: 16.2 PER, Win Shares: 6.7, +1.40 RPM
92Lou WilliamsLakers | Guard | Last year: —To watch Williams run the offense must be an fretful experience for a coach. What he gives a team in terms of shot creation is undeniably valuable; Williams is an impressive salesman on the perimeter given his ability to turn a defender’s momentary hesitation into a trip to the foul line. Yet unleashing Williams by necessity means giving him control—an enterprise that tends to bring the entire coaching staff to hand-wringing. Will Williams notice that the defense is tilting toward him and find the open man? Might he drain the shot clock too far in his shot hunting? Even if Williams makes a shot or earns a trip to the line, will he give up the same on the other end of the floor?
Every possession with Williams is an adventure. His course might not always take the team in the direction his coach would prefer, though Williams’s validation comes in the fact that he manufactures enough offense to make himself essential. – R.M.
2014-15: 15.5 PPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, 40.4 FG%, 34.0 3P%
Advanced: 19.9 PER, Win Shares: 6.6, +2.52 RPM
91Andrew WigginsWolves | Forward | Last year: —
The youngest player on this list, Andrew Wiggins had a very strong Rookie of the Year season in 2014–15, although perhaps not quite as strong as his raw stats suggest. Forced into heavy usage due to a litany of injuries around him, Wiggins logged a whopping 2,969 minutes and averaged 16.9 points per game, marking the fifth-highest scoring average by a player at age 19 (trailing Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving). Wiggins, now 20, accumulated those points through sheer will power and blunt force, especially down the stretch, as he got to the line nearly six times per game and was encouraged by coach Flip Saunders to operate extensively in the post.
Predictably, the advanced stats aren’t very kind to Wiggins. Young players placed under extreme duress rarely come out with their heads above water, and that was certainly the case for Wiggins during Minnesota’s unsightly 16-win campaign. Due to his inefficient shooting (43.7% overall and 31% from deep) and his limited impact aside from his scoring, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick ranked outside the top 100 in Player Efficiency Rating, outside the top 200 in Win Shares and Real Plus-Minus, and outside the top 400 in WARP in 2014–15. His inclusion on this list, therefore, is a bet that he will be a significantly more efficient, more complete, and more impactful player in Year 2 as he continues to figure out how to best use his otherworldly physical tools. – B.G.
2014-15: 16.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.1 APG, 43.7 FG%, 31.0 3P%
Advanced: 13.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.1, -1.66 RPM
90Taj GibsonBulls | Forward | Last year: 75
Gibson isn’t quite suited to be a full-time center, doesn’t shoot all that well beyond 15 feet, and isn’t an especially prolific rebounder. Where his game pays off is in its capacity for defensive support—the constant stream of help and recover demanded of bigs in the modern NBA. Power forwards with both a high energy level and a close attention to detail are more scarce than you’d think. That alone makes Gibson, a worker who reads the defense’s progression like a coach on the floor, quite useful. Factor in his physical style and a collection of good-not-great complementary skills and Gibson becomes an even more worthwhile accompaniment. – R.M.
2014-15: 10.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 50.2 FG%
16.1 PER, Win Shares: 4.8, -1.33 RPM
89Amir JohnsonCeltics | Forward | Last year: 71
Gloss over the action in a Celtics game this season and you might miss Johnson setting the stout screen that sets a play in motion. Focus too much on a single matchup and you’ll overlook Johnson as he slides into frame to disrupt an opponent’s possession in progress only to slink back out to his assigned man. Train your eyes to watch for the blocked shot, the emphatic rebound, or the made bucket and you’ll ignore the full day’s work being put in on the margins of every sequence by a master of basketball’s minutia. Johnson has great physical tools and even better instincts—the combination of which made him a keystone contributor in Toronto, as it would anywhere.
The catch with Johnson is his tendency to pick up nagging injuries. Rarely do those aches and pains end up costing Johnson time. Although considered somewhat injury-prone, Johnson played in 95% of Toronto’s regular season games over the past four seasons. Instead, Johnson is limited by a sore ankle or tweaked back in subtle ways. Even the gimpy version of Johnson is a player worth having around. He just isn’t able to be his same active, fully engaged self when nursing some ailment or another, hedging his value relative to other top players. – R.M.
2014-15: 9.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 0.8 BPG, 57.4 FG%, 41.3 3P%
Advanced: 15.4 PER, Win Shares: 5.1, +1.83 RPM
88Isaiah ThomasCeltics | Guard | Last year: 90
Generously listed at 5’9”, Isaiah Thomas is one-half of an incredible player. A skilled pick-and-roll point guard who used a greater percentage of his team’s possessions than any point guard not named Russell Westbrook, Thomas generally manages to stay on the good side of the line that separates “does a lot” and “tries to do too much.” He’s a prototypical quality Sixth Man: he can run an offense (as long as he’s the center of the action), he can beat a defense from outside, he’s very skilled at getting to the line, he enjoys Westbrookian self-confidence, and his high activity level draws a lot of attention and defensive help. From a Player Efficiency Rating perspective, Thomas is on par with All-Stars like John Wall and Jeff Teague, his True Shooting Percentage is comparable to All-Star Kyrie Irving, and his Offensive Real Plus-Minus last season was identical to All-Star Damian Lillard’s. When it comes to pound-for-pound point creation, the 2011 draft’s Mr. Irrelevant might just be at the top of the list, and he generates more than his fair share of entertainment, too.
Unfortunately, Thomas’s weaknesses as a defender negate a good chunk of his offensive prowess: The Suns’ defensive rating was three points worse when Thomas was on the court before the trade and the Celtics’ defensive rating was nearly three points worse when Thomas was on the court after the trade. The only point guards who posted worse Defensive Real Plus-Minus marks than Thomas in 2014–15, while playing an equivalent number of minutes, were D.J. Augustin (also undersized), Tony Parker (limited by injury) and Zach LaVine (a rookie playing out of position). In short, Thomas gives, Thomas takes away, and Thomas provides a lot of fun along the way. – B.G.
2014-15: 16.4 PPG, 4.2 APG, 2.3 RPG, 42.0 FG%, 37.3 3P%
Advanced: 20.6 PER, Win Shares: 6.1, +1.45 RPM
87Ricky RubioWolves | Guard | Last year: 87The extreme nature of Rubio’s game makes for a challenging appraisal. In a league where shooting is more valuable than ever, exactly how much damage is done by an inferior—and sometimes reluctant—outside shooter? How much is that deficit offset by the fact that Rubio also ranks as one of the league’s preeminent playmakers? These kind of riddles detract from his obvious command. While Rubio clearly experiences the game in a unique way, his polarized skill set can be hard for some teams to accommodate.
Those teams that can find room to work around Rubio’s flaws, however, stand to benefit greatly. The 24-year-old guard has extraordinary timing; he’s able to thread passes that other guards would never dare and use cagey defense to force all kinds of turnovers. Some of those defensive plays are credited, as evidenced by Rubio’s perennial place on the steals leaderboard. Most are not. The deflections and challenges Rubio contributes over the course of a game aren’t attributed cleanly in the standard box score but tend to show across well in deeper statistical representations of defense. Don’t let his slight frame or cheery disposition fool you. Rubio is a pest to all ball handlers, never more than a reflexive play away from disrupting the opponent’s offensive flow. – R.M.
2014-15: 10.3 PPG, 8.8 APG, 5.7 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 35.6 FG%
Advanced: 15.2 PER, Win Shares: 0.5, +2.71 RPM
86Kenneth FariedNuggets | Forward | Last year: 77
Even if Faried, 25, cuts against many of the preferred grains in today’s game, he’s still quite effective at doing his thing. Somewhat counterintuitively, he manages to be an advanced stats darling despite the holes listed above, ranking in the top 75 in PER, Win Shares, Real Plus-Minus aIt’s not very fashionable to praise Kenneth Faried these days. He’s a paint-bound power forward who doesn’t stretch the floor, doesn’t produce in isolation, and doesn’t make plays for others. He’s an undersized hustle guy who doesn’t defend the four all that well and who can’t be expected to swing up to handle fives. He was stuck in the midst of a giant mess in Denver over the last two seasons, and he received his four-year, $50 million extension largely by taking advantage of Denver’s inexperienced front office after he turned in a strong performance at the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
Even if Faried, 25, cuts against many of the preferred grains in today’s game, he’s still quite effective at doing his thing. Somewhat counterintuitively, he manages to be an advanced stats darling despite the holes listed above, ranking in the top 75 in PER, Win Shares, Real Plus-Minus and WARP, thanks to his prudent shot selection, productive rebounding and general energy. For three straight years, the pogo-jumping Morehead State product has ranked in the top 10 in offensive rebounds, and his constant motion presents problems for defenses in transition, where he regularly finishes highlight lobs, and in the half-court, where he moves well off the ball and collects second-chance points in bunches. There might very well be a ceiling to how effective a player fitting Faried’s profile can be in the modern NBA, but he is doing a decent job of maximizing his utility. At least offensively. – B.G.
2014-15: 12.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.8 BPG, 50.7 FG%
Advanced: 18.4 PER, Win Shares: 5.6, +2.15 RPM
85Michael Kidd-GilchristHornets | Forward | Last year: —
The best perimeter defender in the NBA isn’t yet 22 years old. Kidd-Gilchrist approaches the most difficult assignments in the game with unrelenting focus. Pump fakes don’t budge him. Screens can hardly displace him for long enough to make a difference. His extraordinary athleticism is applied toward consecutive efforts, the sum of which can overwhelm even the game’s best scorers. A defender so long (Kidd-Gilchrist stands 6’9” with a 7-foot wingspan), quick, and determined cannot be eluded easily.
That defense held together a Hornets team that finished ninth in defensive rating last season. Charlotte was otherwise short on exceptional defenders and struck by injuries that undercut an already underwhelming offense. Kidd-Gilchrist was something of a saving grace, one of just two players on the team whose presence coincided with a positive net rating. Kidd-Gilchrist still isn’t much of a shooter, but unlike other range-challenged players he doesn’t force matters. His infamous shooting form is being remade from midrange out (MKG didn’t attempt a single three-pointer last season) all while his cutting and rebounding help to bridge some immediate offensive return. Restraint and energy help offset that which Kidd-Gilchrist cannot do. – R.M.
2014-15: 10.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 46.5 FG%
Advanced: 15.1 PER, Win Shares: 3.8, +2.81 RPM
84Robin LopezKnicks | Center | Last year: 82
For a guy with elementary-school hobbies, Robin Lopez has an impressively “adult” basketball game. The 7-footer possesses old-school craft, setting quality screens, boxing out with extreme diligence, and extending possessions with his offensive rebounding. Although no one would suggest Lopez is quick or smooth, he’s a very effective interior defender who contests shots and uses his fouls to discourage drivers. Prior to Lopez’s 2013 arrival in Portland, the Blazers ranked No. 26 in defensive efficiency. That mark jumped to No. 16 in 2013–14 and No. 10 in 2014–15, as Lopez paired with LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum to form a long, cohesive frontline.
The Knicks’ four-year, $54 million contract to Lopez this summer represents the biggest payday of his career and more than doubles his previous salary. To be clear, New York clearly isn’t getting a star or even star potential, as evidenced by his mediocre showings during the 2014 playoffs (against Dwight Howard’s Rockets and the Spurs’ duo of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter) and the 2015 playoffs (against Marc Gasol’s Grizzlies). Rather, Lopez will be tasked with making All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony’s life easier by providing the last line of defense, doing assorted “dirty work” tasks, diving to the hoop in pick-and-roll situations, and popping towards the ball when defenses send extra attention Anthony’s way. He should be able to fill that job description, even if his lack of foot speed requires that he stay in the paint while defending pick-and-rolls and his individual defensive rebounding numbers leave a lot to be desired. – B.G.
2014-15: 9.6 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 53.5 FG%
Advanced: 16.2 PER, Win Shares: 5.1, 0.53 RPM
83Deron WilliamsMavs | Guard | Last year: 45Williams’s statistical slide has been so steep that he should probably wear a parachute at all times just to be safe: After averaging 21 points and 8.7 assists in 2011–12 to secure a five-year, $98 million contract, Williams managed just 13 points and 6.6 assists in 2014–15 as he missed 10-plus games for the second straight year due to ongoing injuries. His notoriously surly demeanor didn’t exactly help soften the blow caused by the degradation of his skills, and Brooklyn GM Billy King eventually agreed to pay Williams a $27-plus million buyout just to go away. This was a pure money-saving dump. The Nets don’t have a future franchise point guard on their roster waiting to step into Williams’s spot.
A Texas native, Williams, 31, crash-landed with his home state Mavericks, who signed him to a two-year, $11 million deal that includes a player option. Although his All-Star days are seemingly gone for good, Williams now has another contract-year opportunity to play his way back into one final major payday. Dallas can talk itself into a possible resurgence by pointing to Williams’s positive impact on Brooklyn’s offense (nearly six points better last when he was on the court in 2014–15), his postseason experience, his basketball IQ, and his orchestrating abilities. Plus, he can’t be worse than Rajon Rondo. — B.G.
2014-15: 13.0 PPG, 6.6 APG, 3.1 RPG, 38.7 FG%, 36.7 3P%
Advanced: 15.7 PER, Win Shares: 3.6, 1.91 RPM
82Joe JohnsonNets | Guard | Last year: 51
As the sun sets on Johnson’s career, we’ve begun to see the division between solid all-around players and mere adequacy. No longer is Johnson a volume scorer or an especially stout defender. His All-Star game has faded with time, leaving some skills sturdy and others merely passable. Still, Johnson does enough well across the board to make a difference and gets a bump in the rankings based on his agreeable game. At minimum he’s a quality shooter who can handle the ball and compete in coverage at two positions. That kind of player could slide into any rotation in the league and contribute in a meaningful way—whether in assuming the kind of creative responsibility he’s likely to see in Brooklyn next season or in a pure support role on a stacked roster.
Ideally, Johnson’s team could split the difference to have him work as a secondary or tertiary creator. The pick-and-roll has long been an effective vehicle for the 34-year-old, even as he gets to the basket less and less. Johnson is also one of the best post-up guards working; most wings don’t have the size and strength necessary to contend with Johnson’s turnaround jumper in the mid-post, creating clean looks and double teams to be exploited. – R.M.
2014-15: 14.4 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.7 APG, 43.5 FG%, 35.9 3P%
Advanced: 14.1 PER, Win Shares: 4.1, +0.87 RPM
DeMarre CarrollRaptors | Forward | Last year: —Did any NBA player really have a better off-season than DeMarre Carroll? Consider: after earning roughly $8 million total during a six-year journeyman career, the 6’8” combo forward struck gold by securing a four-year, $60 million contract from Toronto. But, unlike Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler and other free agents who received gigantic raises this summer, Carroll bathed in new dough despite being the least important member of his team’s starting five. Indeed, the “Junkyard Dog” was the only Hawks starter not selected to the 2015 All-Star Game, and he ranked fifth on the team in points and minutes played, third in rebounds, and seventh in assists. The advanced stats told the same story: Carroll ranked fifth among Atlanta’s starters in net rating, offensive rating, defensive rating, Win Shares, and fourth in PER.
Nevertheless, Carroll’s timing was impeccable. He shot a career-best 39.5% from deep and regularly bore the responsibility of guarding the opposition’s top perimeter player, making for a powerful 3-and-D combination that now commands a premium price. Atlanta’s 60-win season surely helped vault him up free agency target lists, as did a strong postseason run that saw him score 20-plus points in six straight games when the Nets and Wizards gave him room to work.
In Toronto, Carroll will likely see time at both forward positions, helping to shore up a Raptors defense that sagged last season. If this team/player match is going to be successful, though, Carroll is going to need real help from Toronto’s backcourt. In one of the most startling stats from the entire 2014–15 season, 119 of Carroll’s career-high 120 three-pointers were assisted by his teammates. That’s right: Carroll made a grand total of one three-pointer in 2,189 minutes that wasn’t generated for him. The ultra-unselfish Hawks ranked second in assist rate last season while Toronto ranked 22nd, so brace for the sight of Carroll spotting up in the corner with his hands ready, watching as someone else shoots the ball. – B.G.
2014-15: 12.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 48.7 FG%, 39.5 3P%
Advanced: 15.9 PER, Win Shares: 7.0, +0.41 RPM
George HillPacers | Guard | Last year: —There are two George Hills. One is an unassuming caretaker who works best alongside a star perimeter player, spending most of his offensive possessions spotting up and cutting away from the ball. He swings between both guard spots to handle the toughest defensive assignments and, in the process, relieve his backcourt counterpart.
The other was affectionately dubbed “Indiana George” by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. What separates the two is abandon; “Indiana George” was named as such in honor of Hill’s senior season at IUPUI, in which the guard we’ve come to know as a model of restraint exploded as a slashing, dynamic, 22-point-per-game scorer. Hill had never been able to tap back into that zone consistently as a pro until last season, when he returned midseason to a Pacers team that had lost Paul George and let Lance Stephenson walk in free agency. Hill took over. In his abbreviated season, Hill launched around screens to give Indiana the creative sustenance it desperately needed; without him, the Pacers’ offense cratered by nine points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
Hill, meanwhile, scored 19.6 points, notched 6.3 assists, and grabbed 5.1 rebounds per 36 minutes despite working his way back from injury and into the mix of a changed roster. This was Indiana George realized. The realities of the Pacers’ roster had demanded that Hill be something other than the wallflower he had been previously and he responded with the most significant output of his career. He could still space the floor if need be (Hill ranked in the 96th percentile of spot-up shooters last season, per Synergy Sports) and continued the taxing work of picking up the best guards in the league, night after night. Hill merely did so while making it his business to manufacture offense—expanding his value in newfound application. – R.M.
2014-15: 16.1 PPG, 5.1 APG, 4.2 RPG, 47.7 FG%, 35.8 3P%
Advanced: 21.5 PER, Win Shares: 5.4, +3.77 RPM
Brandon KnightSuns | Guard | Last year: —
Knight’s numbers fell off a cliff when he was traded to the Suns, as he dealt with an ankle injury that would end his season in mid-March and require surgery in April. Despite that inauspicious beginning in the desert, and lingering questions about his fit alongside Eric Bledsoe, Knight nevertheless received a gigantic seal of approval from Suns GM Ryan McDonough in the form of a five-year, $70 million contract in July. Those five months certainly qualify as a disorienting rollercoaster.
Expectations should be fairly low for the Suns after their off-season overhaul, giving Knight, 23, plenty of time to get comfortable. A skilled pick-and-roll playmaker with dependable range and enough passing instincts to get by, Knight makes sense as an on-ball initiator and off-ball floor-balancer next to Bledsoe. That theory must become a reality this year. Defensively, Knight must do a better job at the point of attack, and it’s about time for him to translate his solid physical tools and quickness into better defensive numbers. Last season, he ranked outside the top 50 among point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and Michael Carter-Williams, his replacement in Milwaukee, bested Knight’s defensive rating after the trade. If things break right and Knight returns to good health, he should be in the mix as a top-15 point guard by the end of the season. – B.G.
2014-15: 17.0 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.9 RPG, 42.2 FG%, 38.9 3P%
Advanced: 17.1 PER, Win Shares: 4.5, -2.36 RPM
Tobias HarrisMagic | Forward | Last year: —Tobias Harris cashed in on a career year in 2014–15 to take home a four-year, $64 million near-max contract with the Magic. But who, exactly, did the Magic secure? One of the NBA’s most prolific young scorers? An inexperienced starter who has yet to play real minutes on a winner or make the playoffs? A quasi-combo forward who might be able to play two positions well but also might be stuck between positions? Yes, yes, and yes.
The 6’8” Harris was one of just four age-22 or younger players to average at least 17 points a game last season (joining No. 1 overall picks Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving, and teammate Victor Oladipo), and he has the makings of a solid all-around scoring game that features doses of post-ups, spot-up shooting from outside, one-on-one attacks off the dribble, and pick-and-roll opportunities. At the same time, he didn’t exactly set the nets ablaze with his efficiency, and he stacked up his numbers in dozens of meaningless games for a 25-win team that fired coach Jacque Vaughn midseason. If his scoring acumen still needs to be validated, his defense is probably due for an overhaul under new coach Scott Skiles. Harris ranked 72nd at his position in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season, and the Magic, who ranked No. 25 in defensive efficiency, were nearly four points worse on that end with him on the court.
There’s a very real “To be determined” quality hanging over Harris, who needs to show the world that the Magic re-signed him because he was a legit keeper, and not just someone they were afraid to lose for nothing. – B.G.
2014-15: 17.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 46.6 FG%, 36.4 3P%
Advanced: 16.7 PER, Win Shares: 4.8, -2.53 RPM
77Jonas ValanciunasRaptors | Center | Last year: 80The size of Jonas Valanciunas’s new deal (four years, $64 million) suggests that the Raptors view the 23-year-old as a key long-term building block, while its timing hints that GM Masai Ujiri wanted to preemptively strike against the possibility of a max offer sheet next summer.
Despite starting since he entered the NBA in 2012, Valanciunas averaged a modest 26.2 minutes last season. With Amir Johnson gone to Boston in free agency, Valanciunas should see a big bump in his playing time and responsibility, as coach Dwane Casey will need to lean more heavily upon him late in games. Last season, in part due to a 105.6 defensive rating that was the worst mark among Toronto’s rotation big men, Valanciunas regularly watched the crunchtime action unfold from the sideline.
Valanciunas’s offensive abilities far surpass his defensive abilities. Blessed with good scoring instincts, soft hands, quality touch, and an array of pump fakes, Valanciunas is an efficient, talented low-post scorer whose size and strength cause problems for undersized defenders. Given his per-36 numbers during his age-22 season—16.5 points and 11.9 rebounds—it’s reasonable to assert that Valanciunas has All-Star potential, and his two postseason trips set him apart from a number of other up-and-coming Eastern Conference big men (Nikola Vucevic, Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Hassan Whiteside). To take the next step on offense, Valanciunas needs more touches, and he must find a way to strike a balance with Toronto’s high-usage guards. Defensively, he needs to work on his lateral quickness, and he must continue to improve as a backline helper. Now that the path has been cleared and his financial future has been secured, don’t be surprised if Valanciunas delivers a long-anticipated breakout campaign in 2015–16. TNT’s Charles Barkley will learn to pronounce his name soon enough. – B.G.
2014-15: 12.0 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 57.2 FG%
Advanced: 20.6 PER, Win Shares: 8.2, -0.68 RPM
76Andrew BogutWarriors | Center | Last year: 65
Golden State won the NBA Finals on the strength of its small ball but won 67 games and made it through the Western Conference playoffs because of Andrew Bogut. His willingness to play whatever role the team needed allowed the Warriors work any necessary angle. Bogut started at center and played roughly half of every game he suited up for. Then, when the situation called for it, Bogut retired to the bench to allow the Warriors a different look. The result was a hyper-dynamic team even by championship standards. Few teams in the league—two or three at most—could claim to have a rim protector as effective as Bogut. Fewer still could control his minutes and role as Golden State did, maximizing the potency of all involved.
Thaddeus YoungNets | Forward | Last year: 69One doesn’t script ways for Young to be an active participant in the offense. He just finds a way to help. By seizing on openings in the defense, the 27-year-old forward darted his way into enough runners and put-backs to supply some 15.8 points per 36 minutes last season. With that, Young creates his own kind of gravity. Even a so-so shooter can force a defense to guard him honestly if he’s always on the move, carving up open space whenever it’s provided for him.
Young effectively fills the gaps, spatially and systemically, for teams that have an infrastructure in place. There isn’t much room in his game to absorb more usage than he already does. One could look to Young in the post a bit more, perhaps, but there are limits to what he can accomplish there. His tacky hands and quick feet are an asset on the roll, but that utility is reliant on a ball handler to set up his positioning. So much of what Young contributes on offense is contingent on either the workings of his teammates or instinctive positioning. That doesn’t negate his contributions so much as qualify them. Give Young the right kinds of teammates and he’ll return improvisational scoring, flexible defense, and the natural lift of on-court hustle. – R.M.
2014-15: 14.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 46.6 FG%, 33 3P%
Advanced: 15.7 PER, Win Shares: 3.1, +1.20 RPM
74Tiago SplitterHawks | Center | Last year: 70It pays to have friends in the NBA, as Hawks president and coach Mike Budenholzer proved again this summer when he acquired Tiago Splitter from the Spurs—where he served for years as an assistant to Gregg Popovich—for nothing more than a protected second-round pick. Despite injury issues that cost Splitter 30 games in 2014–15 and more than 20 games in 2013–14, the 6’11” Brazilian center was no standard salary dump. San Antonio needed to make way for All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, and Splitter was simply the odd man out. Don’t be fooled by his modest per-game numbers: Splitter is an effective contributor on both ends who should mesh well with Atlanta’s San Antonio-like pass-heavy offensive philosophy, and with its two All-Star big men: Al Horford and Paul Millsap.
As one of the better defense-first centers in the NBA, Splitter, 30, formed a dominant duo with Tim Duncan, posting elite defensive numbers over the last three seasons. Along the way, Splitter played in two NBA Finals and won a title in 2014, and his physical, lunch pail approach to interior defense, pick-setting and offensive rebounding is sorely needed by the Hawks, who got bullied by the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. Splitter understands that his offensive game is limited to finishing plays—often pick-and-roll passes and dump-offs—around the basket area. He also moves and passes well enough that he shouldn’t adversely impact Atlanta’s flow all that much, even if he doesn’t fit the “spread five” profile the Hawks have turned to in the past. If Splitter can play a full season health-wise, his trade could go down as the summer’s top steal, as he gives Budenholzer the flexibility to play a more traditional frontline without compromising on talent. – B.G.
2014-15: 8.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.7 BPG, 55.8 FG%
Advanced: 18.9 PER, Win Shares: 4.0, +3.29 RPM
Danilo GallinariNuggets | Forward | Last year: 62
The sheer amount of time that Danilo Gallinari missed due to a botched knee surgery makes him appear to be more injury-prone than he actually is. That lost 2013–14 season wasn’t evidence of his body failing him but of his doctor. To hold that against him would make little sense, especially when Gallinari worked himself into a good playing rhythm upon his return. His month-to-month progress was stark. By season’s end Gallinari looked every bit himself, scoring on herky-jerky drives and knocking down gutsy jumpers. Denver rested him on the tail end of back-to-backs, though in the 19 games in March and April that Gallo did play he averaged 19.3 points (on 45.6% shooting from the field, 40% from three), 5.1 rebounds, and just 1.1 turnovers in almost 32 minutes.
His defense is still a work in progress. In his younger, healthier days, Gallinari hustled his way into capably defending three positions. Some of that flexibility might now be gone, though any 6’10” wing willing to fight for position could have a future spotting minutes at power forward. The catch is that Gallinari ultimately defends with the sensibility of a wing. Lock him in against another competitor on the perimeter and he’ll bother an opponent with his length and singular focus. Ask him to cover the back end of a pick-and-roll, and Gallo might get a little lost along the way. For that reason (along with so-so rebounding) Gallinari is less positionally flexible than one might think, though his size still gives him a consistent advantage against most small forwards. – R.M.
2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.4 APG, 40.1 FG%, 35.5 3P%
Advanced: 16.8 PER, Win Shares: 3.9, +1.98 RPM
72Ryan AndersonPelicans | Forward | Last year: 59
The NBA’s court-spacing revolution is well underway—so much so that teams around the league have already made tactical responses to the influx of sweet-shooting big men. Anderson was among the prime targets of that response. At minimum, the rules in terms of when and how to help off of Anderson have evolved over the years and differ from most power forwards. Some teams task wing players to guard him and live with the results. Others are forced to adjust their rotational schemes to the reality that Anderson’s defender otherwise might not be able to help and recover in his usual cadence. Regardless of the specific tactic, the fact that the NBA at large has widely adapted its defensive practices to account for players like Anderson provides him with a nightly challenge.
For that reason, Anderson is more effective on some nights than others. Certain opponents can find ways to scheme Anderson out of his normal rhythm without sacrificing the base structure of their defense. That he requires that kind of attention at all says something of his capability. Anderson might not have the diversity in his game to respond consistently across a variety of coverages, though the fact that he’s a threat from distance who can contribute as a screener and offensive rebounder gives him a certain standing import. – R.M.
2014-15: 13.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.9 APG, 39.9 FG%, 34 3P%
Advanced: 15.6 PER, Win Shares: 3.5, -1.70 RPM
Paul PierceClippers | Forward | Last year: 46
It seems impossible that a veteran, champion, and All-NBA mainstay would surprise anyone some 17 years into his NBA career. Yet Pierce—chock full of well-worn moves and fakes—will undoubtedly dupe defenders on a regular basis again next season. Something in his game might be so slippery as to be immortal.
Tristan ThompsonCavs | Forward | Last year: —
It’s good to be the king. It’s good to play with the King. Tristan Thompson, Cleveland’s 24-year-old power forward, received newfound attention in 2014–15 thanks to the arrival of LeBron James, who immediately guided the Cavaliers to their first Finals trip since ‘07. With key rotation pieces seemingly dropping left and right due to injury, Thompson saw his role increase substantially during the postseason, as he stepped into the starting lineup for Kevin Love and logged heavy minutes. James excels at getting the most out of his teammates, and Thompson was a willing muse: his high-energy approach, uncanny ability to track offensive rebounds, and defensive mobility consistently earned him high praise from James and appreciation from Cleveland’s fans. Three seasons spent amassing pointless double-doubles on losing, dysfunctional teams provided Thompson all the motivation he needed to make the most of his new lease on basketball life.
Thompson is ideally suited to life as a quality sixth man for Cleveland: he’s not a go-to scorer, he’s certainly not a floor-stretcher, and he’s not a playmaker for others. Plus, the James/Love/Timofey Mozgov frontline combination should be absolutely devastating next season. But Thompson has proven himself to be the type of player that you can’t keep off the court: he alternated between defending the four and five, he fearlessly stepped out to the arc to defend on high screens, and he helped James set a deliberated, controlled pace by extending possessions through hustle plays. As of press time, Thompson remains this summer’s top unsigned talent, as his agent, Rich Paul, is hoping to leverage Thompson’s strong playoff play and chemistry with James into a max deal that certainly overstates his actual value. That approach might eventually prove successful, though, as losing Thompson next summer would quality as a major hit to James’s championship dreams. – B.G.
2014-15: 8.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 0.7 BPG, 54.7 FG%
Advanced: 15.6 PER, Win Shares: 6.8, +0.86 RPM
Hassan WhitesideHeat | Center | Last year: —
Even without his track record of insubordination and immaturity, Whiteside’s 2014–15 performance would seem unbelievable on scale alone. A 25-year-old came out of the basketball woodworks to average 17.8 points, 15.2 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks per 36 minutes. That seemed impossible in an age where digital tabs are kept on most every prospect of note around the world—especially 7-footers who have fluttered in and out of NBA training camps and the D-League system. Whiteside simply fell through the cracks of some organizations and was dismissed (for perfectly good reasons) in others.
Whiteside seems a pain to work with. In 48 games last season, though, he left Heat coach Erik Spoelstra no choice but to tolerate the ongoing headaches. Players who produce like Whiteside are drafted in the top five, guarded as franchise centerpieces, and given max deals. There is more healthy skepticism in this particular case than there might be in some other young center’s ascent, though all of that might soon be moot should Whiteside’s play endure. His numbers are eye-popping, precedent-shattering and logic-quashing. There might still be miles to go before Whiteside redeems his stat line with consistent, winning basketball, though output in that magnitude would be a hell of a place to start. – R.M.
2014-15: 11.8 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 62.8 FG%
Advanced: 26.2 PER, Win Shares: 5.3, +0.68 RPM
Timofey MozgovCavs | Center | Last year: —
The acquisition of Timofey Mozgov proved to be the right trade at exactly the right time for the Cavaliers. Before the move in January, Cleveland was 19–17 (.528) and ranked 10th offensively and 24th defensively. After the trade, Cleveland closed with a 34–12 (.739) record and bumped up to 3rd offensively and 17th defensively. The night-and-day transformation was certainly driven by LeBron James’s return to good health, but Mozgov’s glove-fit totally changed the complexion of the team. David Blatt made full use of Mozgov’s pick-and-roll finishing ability, James rewarded Mozgov’s well-timed off-ball cuts with passes for easy looks around the rim and, most importantly, Cleveland no longer had to close its eyes and pray when it came to interior defense.
The best part of the trade? Mozgov, 29, wasn’t a late-season rental: he returns for another title run on a ridiculously affordable $5 million contract. Although Golden State proved during the Finals that Mozgov’s lack of defensive range can be exploited, most NBA teams don’t have the personnel and firepower to mimic the Warriors’ approach. Indeed, a review of the Cavaliers’ lineup data with Mozgov strongly suggests they are worthy of being tabbed as the overwhelming favorite to win the East: when Mozgov took the court with Cleveland’s three All-Stars (James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving), the Cavaliers posted a whopping +16.9 net rating (113.8 on offense, 96.9 on defense). Look for Mozgov to continue causing more problems for Cleveland’s opponents than the other way around in 2015–16. – B.G.
2014-15: 9.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 55.5 FG%
Advanced: 16.6 PER, Win Shares: 5.7, +2.86 RPM
Nikola VucevicMagic | Center | Last year: 89
Only four players averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds last season—Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, and Nikola Vucevic—and, spoiler alert, the first three of those four were no-brainer selections for our top 15. So what is Orlando’s 7-foot center, doing all the way down here after a breakout fourth season?
Vucevic, 24, is a skillful offensive player with more range than most players his size: he’s a threat from the rim to the elbow, and he can efficiently get buckets in isolation on the block as the roll man diving through the paint or as a dirty-worker on the offensive glass. That toolbox landed Vucevic in the top five at his position in PER, and his ability to compile double-doubles makes him a Win Shares favorite too.
From there, it gets more complicated. Vucevic’s individual production didn’t translate to team success, as Orlando’s offense ranked fourth-worst in the NBA and the Magic sputtered to 25 wins, just two more than the previous season. Importantly, his ability to make the Magic’s attack more potent was more than offset by the damage done by his defense: Orlando posted an atrocious 106.6 defensive rating with Vucevic on the court and he ranked 53rd at his position in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. What’s more, the Magic ranked third-worst when it came to opponent field goal percentage inside five feet, with Synergy Sports grading Vucevic as a “poor” defender in the basket area. One of new coach Scott Skiles’s top goals will be to coax more substantive all-around contributions from his center. – B.G.
2014-15: 19.3 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 2.0 APG, 0.7 BPG, 52.3 FG%
Advanced: 21.5 PER, Win Shares: 7.0, -1.85 RPM
Chandler ParsonsMavs | Forward | Last year: 56Every ranking on this list relies on projection, though none more so than the case of players returning from injury. Parsons’s standing is especially fickle; not only are there the usual questions as to when he might return to full form, but as of now there hasn’t even been public confirmation as to what kind of knee surgery ended his 2014–15 season. Most indications of his progress, too, have come from Parsons himself—the party in all this most likely to be swayed by optimism.
Should Parsons return early in the season and assume his usual form soon after, he’ll warrant movement up this list. This position is couched in the uncertainty of a contract-year player working hard to rehab his knee but ultimately (and wisely) taking things slow. For the purposes of these rankings we evaluate only how well (and how much) a player is likely to play in the 2015–16 season. That task is even more impossible for Parsons than most given his surgery and the potential for a longer recovery timeline.
There’s otherwise a lot to like with Parsons, whose skills were underutilized last season in an offense dominated by guards. What separates Parsons from the other wings in this range is that he could do more than he was asked last season. Among players who logged at least 100 possessions as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll last season in Synergy Sports’ database, only four scored more efficiently than Parsons: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, and Lou Williams. There were factors in Dallas (Dirk Nowitzki, Rick Carlisle, Tyson Chandler) that surely facilitated Parsons’s specific success. That he could score so effectively when given the opportunity at all, though, should prime him for a bigger role in creating offense. Parsons, 26, is already a good player with the mark of a late bloomer. – R.M.
2014-15: 15.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, 46.2 FG%, 38.0 3P%
Advanced: 16.3 PER, Win Shares: 5.5, +2.54 RPM
Trevor ArizaRockets | Forward | Last year: 83
Not every defender of a certain size or body type can defend across multiple positions. Just because a player is tall enough to guard power forwards doesn’t mean he should, and just because a player is relatively quick doesn’t necessarily mean he has any business defending point guards. Ariza is the uncommon wing for whom almost any assignment makes sense. He’s likely his team’s best defensive option from 1 to 4 at any particular moment in time. There are better defenders than Ariza at any particular spot. Good, specific defense is helpful to a team. But broad, elastic defense like Ariza’s is something more.
In a sense, it’s because of Ariza that James Harden’s MVP case was so stark. Houston’s defense (sixth) outranked its offense (12th) last season to little acclaim. Ariza wasn’t the sole reason why, though he suped up the coverage by handling whatever assignment was needed and specifically shielded Harden from matchups that would be too physically demanding or exploitative. Harden’s defense improved because Ariza’s presence controlled the stakes. The MVP runner-up’s offense dominated on a nightly basis because Ariza ensured that the most taxing assignments were handled. – R.M.
2014-15: 12.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.5 APG, 40.2 FG%, 35.0 3P%
Advanced: 12.7 PER, Win Shares: 6.6, +1.58 RPM
Markieff MorrisSuns | Forward | Last year: —
It was the best of times and it was the worst of times for Markieff Morris in 2014–15, as Phoenix’s scoring-minded stretch power forward reached new heights statistically but also ran afoul of the law and lost his beloved twin brother, Marcus, to Detroit in a trade. The 25-year-old Morris is, at heart, a brash gamer: he’s missed just four games during his four-year career, and he seeks the ball in clutch situations, ranking fifth in the NBA in points scored during the final minute of a one-possession game. A tough all-around cover for defenders due to his combination of mobility and strength, Morris relies heavily on his comfort in the mid-range and perimeter to generate his scoring opportunities, but he can also create a shot for himself in one-on-one situations and overpower smaller defenders going to the basket. Morris graded out well defensively last season, ranking sixth among power forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and his frame suits him well here too: he’s physical and competitive enough to make post-minded fours work for their points, and yet he’s quick and agile enough to track players out to the arc.
Morris’s devotion to unfiltered self-expression led to 15 technical fouls last season, second-most in the NBA, and it’s caused him to make waves with coach Jeff Hornacek, the Suns’ fan base and the Phoenix Police Department. Nevertheless, his bargain contract—$32 million over the next four years—ensures he will be given a second, a third and a fourth chance if the bridges in Phoenix are burned. — B.G.
2014-15: 15.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 46.5 FG%, 31.8 3P%
Advanced: 15.8 PER, Win Shares: 4.6, +3.43 RPM
Marcin GortatWizards | Center | Last year: 58Gortat is a blue-collar starting center who never seems to get his due. His own coach often opts to close games without him; Gortat averaged just five fourth-quarter minutes per game in the regular season, the lowest mark on the team save for benchwarmer Garrett Temple. Some of those choices were defensible based on matchup and others less so. Regardless, Gortat is too good a player for that kind of minutes allocation to stand as an indictment. Plenty of teams would be lucky to have a center who rolls hard to the rim, defends capably, and rebounds well.
That balance alone puts Gortat in rare company as a well-sized NBA center who helps his team across the board. On offense he works best on the move, slicing through space on light feet just as a play develops. What might seem like opportunism is earned through acute awareness and finished by a soft touch when power dunking isn’t an option. Should a possession turn stagnant, Gortat also has a functional, low-flash post game—basic drop steps into baby hooks and other textbook fare. None of Gortat’s individual skills stand out much against the league’s finest. When interwoven, however, they form the kind of tight-knit proficiency that makes Gortat one of the NBA’s more effective centers. – R.M.
2014-15: 12.2 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 56.6 FG%
Advanced: 18.2 PER, Win Shares: 8.6, +2.46 RPM
Bradley BealWizards | Guard | Last year: 76
Betting on meaningful improvement from Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal makes all the sense in the world. The 2012 lottery pick is young for his class, his total impact has been muted by injuries during his first three seasons, he’s proven himself to be a lethal three-point shooter and, at some point, he will learn to read a shot chart and adjust his shot selection accordingly. Although he did trim some of the fat in 2014–15, Beal still hit an abysmal 33.1% of his long twos, which made up 27.7% of his total attempts. Even though the city is overflowing with attorneys, few people in D.C. settle more often than Beal, who should instead be launching six or seven three-pointers per game like other top marksmen at his position.
Beal’s postseason work hints at All-Star potential in the near future. In the 2014 and 2015 playoffs, he’s taken on a greater offensive load than during the regular season, attacking the basket more often, getting to the stripe with greater regularity, attempting more threes, and playing more committed and attentive defense, especially on the ball. His 2015 playoff stats (23.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.6 APG) put him in elite company with LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady when it comes to the best numbers posted in an age-21 season, and he carried himself at times with star-like moxie.
Although Beal, 22, is bound to play second fiddle to franchise point guard John Wall, his role should be headed for a sizeable increase this season following the off-season departure of Paul Pierce. A major breakout is a real possibility. – B.G.
2014-15: 15.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.1 APG, 42.7 FG%, 40.9 3P%
Advanced: 14.0 PER, Win Shares: 3.7, +2.48 RPM
DeMar DeRozanRaptors | Guard | Last year: 61
Last year, DeMar DeRozan’s No. 61 ranking on this list inspired passionate disapproval from Raptors fans, given his 2014 All-Star selection, his 22.7 PPG average, and his first career postseason appearance. But if anything, SI.com overrated the 26-year-old, whose 2014–15 season was defined by an unfortunate groin injury, ghastly shooting numbers, and an embarrassing first-round sweep.
It would be easier to forgive DeRozan’s 41.3% shooting and 28.4% three-point shooting if he were a skilled playmaker, a floor-spacer or a plus defender. Unfortunately, none of those accurately describe his game, so he must be held accountable for all of his bricks. Toronto’s superb offensive efficiency fell 3.3 points with him on the court last season, and he spent the playoffs in handcuffs (20.3 points on 20 shots per game). In DeRozan’s defense, his efficiency takes a hit because he plays huge minutes and he’s often the bail-out guy at the end of possessions. When he’s using his athleticism to go downhill, DeRozan is able to put significant pressure on defenses and his options improve: He’s a fine finisher around the hoop, he seeks out and successfully draws a lot of contact, and he’s always a threat to use his leaping ability to posterize defenders. If Toronto does decide to play small ball more extensively by utilizing DeMarre Carroll as a power forward, DeRozan stands to benefit from the greater spacing that should result. – B.G.
2014-15: 20.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.5 APG, 41.3 FG%, 28.4 3P%
Advanced: 17.4 PER, Win Shares: 4.0, -0.18 RPM
Derrick RoseBulls | Guard | Last year: 23
At the peak of his powers, Derrick Rose’s ferocious off-the-dribble game was practically an offense in and of itself for the Bulls. In those days, Rose’s subpar outside shooting was an afterthought, as he could get anywhere he want on the court, finishing creatively at the rim, getting to the line and setting up his teammates for easy looks. Those days are gone, existing now only in flashes, as recurring knee injuries have sidelined Rose for more than 180 games over the last three years and neutered his offensive attack style. The 26-year-old former MVP’s quiet departure from USA Basketball this summer could be read as an acceptance of his new, less certain reality.
Last season, Rose didn’t get as deep into the paint or to the free-throw line as frequently. He also launched three-pointers like never before. That last bit, in particular, was a major problem: Rose’s 28% shooting from outside was the worst mark of any NBA player with at least 100 minutes logged last season. Yes, he hit one of the best shots of the 2015 playoffs by banking in a game-winning three against the Cavaliers, but his combination of high-volume and low-efficiency is less-than-ideal for a team with serious championship aspirations.
Because so much of his value was tied to his explosiveness, post-injury Rose has fallen into the 20s among point guards by PER and Real Plus-Minus. It’s hard to see that downward trend totally reversing course, especially because he missed 30-plus games and nearly endured another season-ending injury in 2014–15. Rookie coach Fred Hoiberg enters his job knowing he must find a way to balance his offense between Rose, 2015 All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol, and a nice cast of complementary options, while also preparing for the ever-present possibility that Rose might miss significant time. With Rose’s max contract two years away from completion—he will earn $20 million this year and $21.3 million next year—there’s still time for Chicago to experiment with his role and gauge his progress before seriously contemplating what a post-Rose squad might look like. – B.G.
2014-15: 17.7 PPG, 4.9 APG, 3.2 RPG, 40.5 FG%, 28 3P%
Advanced: 15.9 PER, Win Shares: 1.2, +0.89 RPM
Jrue HolidayPelicans | Guard | Last year: 50
Sadly, Jrue Holiday received almost as much television airtime during the Women’s World Cup, as he cheered his wife Lauren to gold, as he did during the Pelicans’ brief playoff appearance. Injuries are a bummer like that. After earning 2013 All-Star honors in Philadelphia, the 6’4” point guard has appeared in less than half of New Orleans’ games in each of the last two seasons due to ongoing leg injuries. In fact, Holiday’s injuries have been such a frustrating hang-up that the Sixers were reportedly fined $3 million by the NBA for not properly disclosing them to the Pelicans prior to the trade.
When Holiday, 25, was on the court last season, New Orleans posted a 108.8 offensive rating that was equivalent to third-best mark in the NBA. He is an experienced pick-and-roll practitioner with good size, a quality jumper and the ability to break down a defense for drive-and-kick opportunities. Coupled with the continued exponential development of Anthony Davis and the arrival of coach Alvin Gentry, his return to health has the potential to turn the Pelicans into a real juggernaut.
Even better, Holiday brings values both ways: he possesses the size and foot speed necessary to handle all types of defensive matchups, he’s particularly attentive on the ball, and he has a knack for forcing turnovers. Davis’s rapid ascension to MVP candidate form makes it that much harder to remain patient during Holiday’s absences. The potential for something pretty magical to come together is sitting right there, if only Holiday can get back in the game (and stay there). – B.G.
2014-15: 14.8 PPG, 6.9 APG, 1.6 SPG, 44.6 FG%, 37.8 3P%
Advanced: 18.8 PER, Win Shares: 3.4, +3.22 RPM
Tyreke EvansPelicans | Forward | Last year: 84
Tyreke Evans plays as if there is a tractor beam pulling him towards the rim at all times. Unfortunately, the basketball is always a part of this magnetic tug, and that’s where he gets into a few problems. “Attack mode” is his way of life, whether he’s running the offense out of high pick-and-rolls, isolating against a defender on the perimeter or taking off in transition. Standing 6’6” and thickly-built, the 25-year-old Evans prefers risking the possibility of a low-percentage shot in traffic, an offensive foul, or a wild runner in hopes that his forays will exhaust or overwhelm defenders and create quality inside-out looks for his teammates.
That approach worked fairly well last year, on balance, as Evans stepped into greater ball-handling and offense-initiating responsibility after the loss of Jrue Holiday to injury. Although Evans is hardly a natural point guard, he’s comfortable with the ball in his hands, and his downhill style makes him a constant threat in pick-and-rolls. It wasn’t always pretty and it was occasionally frustrating to watch: his locomotive approach left him making just 52.9 percent of his shots in the basket area, he struggled more than most to finish plays in transition, and he never grasped that he was one of the NBA’s least reliable clutch shooters while teammate Anthony Davis was one of the NBA’s most reliable. Despite his blinders, Evans led the Pelicans in assists and he was one of just six minutes-qualified players in the NBA to average 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in 2014-15. This wasn’t empty stat-stuffing: New Orleans finished with a top-10 offense and the Pelicans’ offensive rating improved by 6.5 points when he took the court. As an emergency back-up plan, Evans as lead guard worked out swimmingly.
Holiday’s expected return brings serious questions for Evans, who has started for the bulk of his six year career but was used primarily as a sixth man during the 2013-14 season. A return to the bench makes sense for a number of reasons. First, Evans isn’t the world’s most sophisticated defender, although he is zealous on the ball, and Holiday grades out much better on that end. Second, Evans and Holiday are both used to having the ball, so it would make sense to space their minutes to avoid redundancies and keep a lead guard in the game at all times. Finally, Evans isn’t much of an outside shooter, so trying to play him off the ball alongside Holiday isn’t ideal from a spacing standpoint, especially if Eric Gordon is available.
Perhaps new coach Alvin Gentry, who arrives from Golden State, will view Evans fitting into an Andre Iguodala-like role that would give him free reign over the second unit and put his play-making ability to greater use. If that’s how it plays out, look for Evans, who won the 2010 Rookie of the Year award in Sacramento, to be in the discussion for the 2016 Sixth Man of the Year award. – B.G.
2014-15: 16.6 PPG, 6.6 APG, 5.3 RPG, 44.7 FG%, 30.4 3P%
Advanced: 17.7 PER, Shares: 4.6, +3.15 RPM
Monta EllisPacers | Guard | Last year: 66
Any team that employs Ellis makes the same bargain: In exchange for his harebrained defense, his awkward fit, and his insistent ball dominance, Ellis will give you around 20 points per game while working the opposing defense into a tizzy. His career showcases agility as a weapon. The ability to turn a defender’s snap decision against them with a quick change of direction is a powerful tool, especially for a ball handler of Ellis’s usage. If a player functions best as a central part of the offense, the least he can do is provide the means to adapt to changes in coverage when they arise. Ellis’s speed and handle give him that out.
Dallas drew on that spontaneity to keep its offense rolling but could never quite handle the jagged edge of the Ellis exchange. Ellis is of point guard size but shouldn’t be defending top point guards. He also needs to play a primary role in initiating offense lest his talents go to waste, limiting the list of players he can succeed alongside. There will be some matchups where Ellis cannot be sufficiently hidden on defense and others where his decision-making veers into dangerous territory. All this makes Ellis a rather needy sort, as getting the most out of his game and the team’s prospects requires compensatory perimeter defense, range shooting, rim protection, secondary ball handling, and adept pick-and-roll partners. Whether he’s deemed to be worth the trouble depends on how desperate a team might be for the propulsive driving Ellis provides. – R.M.
2014-15: 18.9 PPG, 4.1 APG, 2.4 RPG, 44.5 FG%, 28.5 3P%
Advanced: 16.5 PER, Win Shares: 3.6, +1.92 RPM
Luol DengHeat | Forward | Last year: 55
In a range of players all flawed in some significant way, Deng is notable for the fact that he takes nothing off the table. A team could play any way it likes with Deng slotted at small forward and enjoy the same winning ends: Steady production, heady defense, and a commitment to the work. Coaches sing his praises. Teammates past and present adore him. Such positive reflection is far from coincidence; Deng plays hard, smart, and in a way that makes his team all the better for it.
That kind of work tends to go understated. Deng was a forgotten man in Miami last season despite filling a number of important functions for a team stocked with veteran talent. Let the traditional superstars handle the bulk of the shot creation and ball handling. Deng strikes a balance through an innate sense of accompaniment, meeting his team’s constantly evolving needs without being ordered or asked. – R.M.
2014-15: 14.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.9 APG, 46.9 FG%, 35.5 3P%
Advanced: 15.5 PER, Win Shares: 5.4, +3.37 RPM
Nicolas BatumHornets | Forward | Last year: 43
The mark of a great NBA offense is the ability to respond to openings quickly and competently from every position. Batum embodies that ideal. He exists not to create breakdowns but to exploit them; once a teammate collapses the defense with a drive or forces overreaction on a post-up, the ball works through Batum to find its most effective endpoint. Sometimes it lies with him. Batum had a rough shooting season last year but has otherwise been a reliable spot-up choice. Slashing against a rotating defense is a comfortable act for him, too, as Batum has no problem putting the ball on the floor and navigating his way around scrambling defenders.
Most often, Batum uses a defense’s desperation against it to seek out the open man. His eyes are trained for those moments of panic when two defenders attempt to cover the same man. Many of his moves are attempts at triggering a response – less-than-earnest “attempts” to score, for example, executed to lull another defender out of position in help. Every half-court possession demands that players make critical decisions in an instant. Within that fraction of a second, Batum often finds the time to play chess with the defense.
It’s for that reason that he’s assisted on better than 20% of his teammates’ field goals while on the floor in each of the last three seasons. Batum catalyzes – he takes what a possession gives him and wrings out more, turning a simple kick-out into an engine for adaptable offense. Maximizing his value thus relies on his team having a solid basis for execution already in play. Any team that can satisfy that prerequisite would have its operations enriched by Batum’s in-possession management. – R.M.
2014-15: 9.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.8 APG, 40.0 FG%, 32.4 3P%
Advanced: 13.1 PER, Win Shares: 5.2, +0.38 RPM
Kobe BryantLakers | Guard | Last year: 24If this was a list of the NBA’s most famous players, or its most popular, or its richest, Kobe Bryant would be roughly 50 spots higher. But those aren’t the driving factors at play here, and the Lakers’ shooting guard no longer rates near the top of the NBA’s class on a value basis. Bryant is now 37 and coming off three consecutive season-ending injuries that have limited him to 41 games total since April 2013. Father Time is blowing into his hands and walking towards the scorer’s table.
Indeed, there is a pretty good case to be made that Bryant shouldn’t be on this list at all. Bryant had the worst effective field goal percentage (.411) of any NBA player to take at least 700 shots. Nevertheless, Bryant’s usage rate (34.9%) was second-highest in the league, trailing only Russell Westbrook. Simultaneously, Bryant had the worst defensive rating (112.6) of any player that logged at least 1,000 minutes, and he ranked 81st out of 91 shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. That’s what happens when you gamble off the ball with Donald Trump-like discretion and play transition defense like a flabbergasted tourist whose money belt has just been ripped off his waist in broad daylight.
All told, the 21-win Lakers, who were impotent in every facet, somehow managed to improve on both offense and defense when Bryant was out of the game. Watching Bryant shamelessly freelance in his career’s last chapter is undoubtedly more entertaining than watching mediocre nobodies straining to keep their heads above water, but both methods of play are headed to the same destination: the lottery.
Bryant lands on this list because his lingering skills—his legendary competitiveness and fearlessness, his decades of experience in high-pressure environments, his volume scoring, his ability to command a defense’s attention, his skilled footwork in the post, his shot-creation ability—could theoretically provide real value in a less compromised environment. Consider a few (admittedly implausible) hypotheticals: Bryant heads to a contender stocked with talent that he trusts, Bryant shifts to life as a gunning sixth man, Bryant is backed up by strong interior defenders, Bryant plays for a coach who has the authority to tell him “no” every once in a while. Under those conditions, an aging Bryant might not be quite as handicapped by his short temper and blinding self-reliance, and he would have a better chance at staving off The End for a few more go-arounds. – B.G.
2014-15: 22.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.6 APG, 37.3 FG%, 29.3 3P%
Advanced: 17.6 PER, Shares: 0.2, -2.15 RPM
Tony ParkerSpurs | Guard | Last year: 15
Clever though Parker may be, players of his type—driving point guards reliant on their quickness—don’t tend to age gracefully. That reality makes his decline in back-to-back seasons as explicable as it is worrisome. We’ve seen Parker neutralized by age and nagging injury to the point of postseason irrelevance. While it’s very much possible a sore Achilles was largely to blame for Parker’s latest sputter, the broader trends in his performance are nevertheless discouraging. Were Parker on another team that didn’t so expertly disguise his limitations, his current reputation could be quite different.
So much of what Parker does offensively hinges on his ability to create separation, whether through his deft maneuvers on the way to the rim or in running around screens to spring free for a jumper. Losing a half-step has cost Parker many of those opportunities. Nowhere is this more obvious than in transition; once a fast break unto himself, Parker now finds opposing defenders catching up to him in transition with alarming frequency. Parker actually shot a lower percentage from the field and registered a higher turnover rate in transition scenarios last season than he did while handling the ball in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports. The open floor is no longer his to exploit as he wishes. He’s a good scorer, still, who can supply functional playmaking and improved standstill three-point shooting. Parker just isn’t slashing with the same vigor these days and thus lost his footing in the point guard hierarchy. – R.M.
2014-15: 14.4 PPG, 4.9 APG, 1.9 RPG, 48.7 FG%, 42.7 3P%
Advanced: 15.9 PER, Win Shares: 4.1, -3.15 RPM
Rudy GayKings | Forward | Last year: 67It’s important to distinguish between Rudy Gay, the player, and Rudy Gay, the idea. The latter is irrelevant for our purposes. The former, on the other hand, is coming off of his best season as a pro: a productive, efficient, and unselfish campaign as one of Sacramento’s usage leaders. Gay hasn’t transformed his game so much as seen it through to maturity. Although the areas of the floor where he operates most frequently have shifted over time, Gay’s basic skills and approach have remained more or less the same. The growth is in the doing; gradual refinement and a slow shift in Gay’s creative priorities have made him a better version of what he’s always been.
With that comes the same basic concerns regarding Gay’s work on defense. Dwelling too much on Gay’s shot selection always risked missing the point. Gay, a long-armed, 6’9” wing, should be more useful in coverage than he is. He should have the tools after nine NBA seasons to help his team guard. That just isn’t the case. We’ve seen Gay defend well for stretches or games at a time, though too often he’s caught standing upright with his hands down or lulled a full step out of position. The balance is underwhelming. – R.M.
2014-15: 21.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 3.7 APG, 45.5 FG%, 35.9 3P%
Advanced: 19.7 PER, Win Shares: 6.1, +0.41 RPM
Ty LawsonRockets | Guard | Last year: 44
After playing for powerhouses at Oak Hill Academy and the University of North Carolina, and making the playoffs in each of his first four seasons in Denver, one wonders what was going through Ty Lawson’s head as the Nuggets self-combusted over the last two seasons. What was he thinking when the Nuggets parted ways with George Karl, or when they failed to retain GM Masai Ujiri, or when the resulting front office mixed nepotism with inexperience, or when Karl’s replacement started pulling desperate JV stunts like rapping his scouting reports to players and regularly calling out his team in the media?
50Danny GreenSpurs | Guard | Last year: 96
Spurs guard Danny Green is the archetype of the “3-and-D” model, as he combines elite three-point shooting and elite all-around defense in a team framework that only requires him to be a complementary piece. “Elite” isn’t being tossed around here lightly. Among players with at least five three-point attempts per game, Green ranked fourth in effective field goal percentage, trailing only Kyle Korver, Stephen Curry and J.J. Redick. Among all two guards, Green ranked fourth in Real Plus-Minus, trailing only James Harden, Khris Middleton and Korver, and his +9.9 net rating led all Spurs players with at least 65 games played.
There’s a misconception that 3-and-D players just sort of hang out and wait for others to make things happen. That’s certainly not the case at all with Green, 28, whose constant activity off the ball creates open looks for himself and others and whose sound, high-effort defense makes him an effective marker on point guards and wings alike. Although Green isn’t an overwhelming physical specimen by any definition, it does sometimes feel like he’s everywhere at once, and he was the only perimeter player to average a block and a steal last season.
Green’s game does have major holes: he isn’t a playmaker, he is fairly hopeless attacking off the dribble, he doesn’t get to the line or finish all that well in traffic, and he is prone to streakiness, as evidenced by his disappointing showing in the 2015 playoffs. Then again, streakiness can be a two-way street, as he shot brilliantly throughout San Antonio’s back-to-back trips to the Finals in 2013 and 2014.
Deciding that he wanted to continue competing for titles year after year for a team that molded him into the key contributor he is today, Green re-signed with the Spurs on a four-year, $45 million contract this summer rather than seeking out a richer offer elsewhere. Considering how handsomely Middleton, DeMarre Carroll and Wesley Matthews were rewarded in free agency, there’s little doubt Green left at least $15 million in total compensation on the table. Of course, his significant sacrifice was quickly buried under new headlines once teammates Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and David West all took sweetheart deals. Taking a backseat to bigger names is par for the course for the team-first Green, who brushed off talk that he is underpaid by saying that he “took what I was worth.” Twenty-nine GMs just muttered, “Damn Spurs.” – B.G.
2014-15: 11.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 43.6 FG%, 41.8 3P%
Advanced: 16.5 PER, Win Shares: 7.8, +5.41 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
49Zach RandolphGrizzlies | Forward | Last year: 42
Fears that Zach Randolph’s play would decline sharply as he progressed through his 30s have so far gone unrealized. The Grizzlies’ two-time All-Star power forward pounded out another year of bruising, low-post contributions, finishing the season as Memphis’ second-leading scorer and leading rebounder. Even though Randolph dealt with a midseason knee injury and turned 34 this summer, he managed to be one of just six players to average 16/10 for the season. He posted similar postseason numbers (15.6 PPG, 8.5 RPG) as the Grizzlies pushed the eventual champion Warriors to six games in the second round. Randolph not only delivered great value on his $16.5 million contract last season, but he now looks like a potential bargain in 2015–16, when he’s set to make $9.6 million on an extension he signed last summer.
A physical, intimidating tactician who thrives on contact, Randolph complements his work on the block in isolation by hitting the offensive glass hard and stepping out to score from midrange. Even if the ground-bound Randolph is generally viewed as one of Memphis’s weaker defensive links, he still graded out well by the major defensive advanced metrics, and he didn’t prevent the Grizzlies from finishing with a top-10 defense for the fifth straight season.
The paint-centric approach hasn’t yet produced a title for the Grizzlies, but it has generated three straight 50-win seasons, five straight postseason appearances, and a winning culture that led Marc Gasol to re-sign without incident as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Randolph’s role in fostering the most successful era of Grizzlies basketball surely goes under-recognized nationally. Z-Bo can still get it done. – B.G.
2014-15: 16.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2.2 APG, 48.7 FG%
Advanced: 19.5 PER, Win Shares: 7.2, +4.55 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
48Greg MonroeBucks | Forward | Last year: 68
The five years Greg Monroe spent in Detroit probably felt like 50, and now he’s finally free. The 6’11” big man took the unusual step of playing out last season on a qualifying offer so that he could become an unrestricted free agent and control his own destiny this summer. You can’t blame him: Monroe’s half-decade with the Pistons saw five coaches, a front-office overhaul and a new ownership group, and throughout all those changes his role never seemed particularly clear. This summer produced a three-year, $50 million contract with the Bucks, who will plug him in as a lead scoring option at center.
Monroe, 25, is an offense-first, defense-second player with a nice bag of tricks in the basket area and a commitment to rebounding. Although he isn’t quite as efficient as you might expect for a player who spends so much time in the paint, he was at the mercy of cramped frontcourt pairings with the likes of Andre Drummond and Josh Smith in Detroit. An effective post-up scorer who has sufficient size to score over most centers, Monroe further butters his bread by getting after it on the offensive glass, as he’s ranked in the top 10 in offensive rebounds in three of the last five seasons. There are long-standing concerns defensively: Monroe isn’t the fleetest of foot and he isn’t a rim-protector in the slightest. In blocking just 34 shots in 2,137 minutes last season, Monroe’s block rate was similar to the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and Enes Kanter. Bucks coach Jason Kidd will be banking on his long, athletic, young squad to help gloss over that obvious limitation. – B.G.
2014-15: 15.9 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 49.6 FG%
Advanced: 21.2 PER, Win Shares: 6.8, +2.65 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
47Al JeffersonHornets | Center | Last year: 26
If we accept that Jefferson is likely better than his injury-curbed play last season but not quite so good as to repeat his career-best output from the year prior, then this range of ranking suits him. Jefferson is a sturdy offensive lead who can top 20 points per 36 minutes while rarely turning the ball over. The looming question is how far that offense might take a team. With as hard as it is to survive on high-volume post play given the space-eating style of modern NBA defenses, Jefferson further complicates matters by scoring in a specific way from a specific space (the left block, almost exclusively) on the floor. That Jefferson doesn’t do anything all that well on offense outside the post would seem to impose a low ceiling on his role as a first option.
Jefferson can hit his numbers in a sustainable way and still risk driving an offense to mediocrity. That makes him ideal for a team like the Hornets, which has long lacked the means to do better in their allocation of offense. The nature of Jefferson’s game, though, renders the final balance of his scoring uncertain. One can’t take away what Jefferson clearly does well. There’s room within his post-dominant game, though, to query what role he would play in the context of a flexible, contending team. – R.M.
2014-15: 16.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.7 APG, 48.1 FG%
Advanced: 19.7 PER, Shares: 4.7, -0.91 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
46Kyle KorverHawks | Forward | Last year: 74
The game of basketball warps around Korver. Wherever he goes, multiple defenders follow: His own man trailing closely, several others inching toward him out of instinct, and more tracking Korver’s movement with their eyes. So precise is his jumper that opposing coaches scheme around the very possibility of its use. This is impact. This is gravity. This is the perpetual value a player like Korver holds without ever touching the ball, making his every second on the court worthwhile.
Plus-minus-derived stats love Korver for just this reason. Only 10 players in the league last season outranked Korver in Real Plus-Minus, most of them no-questions-asked superstars. His postseason scouting report corroborated that notion; quality defensive teams in Washington and Cleveland treated Korver as a priority during their respective series. Those tasked to guard Korver approached the assignment with the apparent discipline of a player who had been warned (or even preemptively chewed out) in the film room. The result was a relatively quiet playoff run that said more about the structure of the Hawks than it did Korver himself.
Korver still forces opponents to play in a certain way and facilitates the flow of the offense in spite of that address. Endurance is critical to his approach. Korver wouldn’t be Korver without a constant stream of activity, most of which goes beyond any scripted play. For all that running, the 34-year-old wing never seems to tire and his shooting form never seems to fade. Such remarkable stamina keeps Korver from settling where others might, forcing defenders to follow as a pump fake flows into a quick pick-and-roll. Even the best shooters in the league need some utility beyond marksmanship. For Korver that comes through in the many ways he assists the progress of the offense. By running full-speed through his cuts, screening unsuspecting opponents, making quick swing passes, and reading situations expertly, Korver does more for his team than most realize. – R.M.
2014-15: 12.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, 48.7 FG%, 49.2 3P%
Advanced: 14.8 PER, Win Shares: 7.5, +5.42 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
45Khris MiddletonBucks | Forward | Last year: —
Khris Middleton is perhaps the best player that most basketball fans wouldn’t recognize if he walked by them at the airport. His rise to riches this summer was remarkable: in 2012 he was a second-round pick, in 2013 he was a throw-in for the Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight trade, in 2014 he toiled in obscurity for a 15-win Bucks team, and when the calendar flipped to 2015 he was just settling in as a starter for coach Jason Kidd.
And then, bam: The 24-year-old Middleton emerged as one of the most promising and versatile 3-and-D wings in the NBA, helping lead the Bucks to the NBA’s second-ranked defense and the East’s No. 6 playoff spot. His breadth of abilities on defense is impressive: he uses his size and length to handle isolation assignments very well, he excels as the small and big in pick-and-roll scenarios and can switch interchangeably as the need arises, he plays with standout energy, and he forces turnovers. Offensively, expecting Middleton to continue to develop into a lead scorer is probably asking too much, but he’s a knockdown spot-up shooter who contributes without dominating the ball and can create scoring chances through his off-ball movement.
Once July came around, Middleton quickly cashed in to the tune of $70 million over five years, becoming the first piece of a long-term foundation that is also expected to include Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even if Middleton never quite makes it to “household name” status, there should be more than a few All-Defensive selections in his future. – B.G.
2014-15: 13.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 46.7 FG%, 40.7 3P%
Advanced: 15.6 PER, Win Shares: 6.7, +6.06 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
44Andre IguodalaWarriors | Forward | Last year: 29
Iguodala goes to work defensively long before his man ever touches the ball. No one in the NBA does denial better. It takes a precise blend of smarts and athleticism to consistently prevent passes without getting burned—a specialty which Iguodala has come to master. Should his mark actually scrap their way into receiving a pass, they do so out of position, later in the shot clock, and out of sync with the play that was supposed to be in progress. They are then faced with the lost cause of attacking Iguodala, who stands a sinewy 6’6” with a 6’11” wingspan, while squared and set. Unsurprisingly, many choose to defer back to their teammates.
It was that capacity to make every little thing difficult on his opponent that earned Iguodala the 2015 NBA Finals MVP. Rarely do the top awards for all-around players go to defensive specialists. Yet what Iguodala did in defending LeBron James was so remarkable that it drew the majority of the media vote. His triumph in a matchup with the best player in the game made for a great story and a point of leverage in the series. The fate of the title was decided by Iguodala doing what none of his teammates—including Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green—could do.
Of course, Iguodala’s Finals MVP candidacy also hinged on a surprising outburst of scoring. Iguodala’s two highest-scoring games all season came in the Finals: a 22-point effort in Game 4 and a 25-point outing to clinch in Game 6. These were aberrations. Iguodala is a capable scorer but so deeply reluctant that it often works against him. Out of 98 total games between the regular season and postseason, Iguodala scored in single digits on 73 occasions. The league is wise to Iguodala’s ways and defends him accordingly. As nice as his ball skills may be, the presence of a player who doesn’t project as a threat to score can be deeply damaging. Golden State compensated for that obstruction, but a less loaded team with a less fluid system might clog instead. – R.M.
2014-15: 7.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 46.6 FG%, 34.9 3P%
Advanced: 12.3 PER, Win Shares: 5.1, +1.36 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
43Joakim NoahBulls | Center | Last year: 17
Noah’s offensive game—suspect from midrange and shaky around the rim—has long flirted with a free fall. In the 2014–15 season it came to pass; lasting injury slowed Noah just enough that he became nearly unplayable. Opponents of any kind could leave him without penalty. In a playoff series, that kind of helplessness can be completely devastating. Every botched layup and bashful jumper served as Chicago’s death knell, as the Bulls scored just 99.6 points per 100 possessions with Noah on the floor in the postseason.
Sharp passing from the perimeter won’t be enough. Noah will have to be healthier next season if he’s to warrant this kind of ranking. Based on the time in recovery and Noah’s own insistence, we expect that to be the case. A more mobile Noah will play closer to his defensive potential and have fuller use of his offensive faculties. That in itself is the difference between a top-40 player and one of more menial standing, which are bounds Noah must come to terms with. Noah’s industrious style of play doesn’t leave any room for persistent, hampering injury.
The All-NBA-caliber defense of a healthy Noah speaks for itself. What’s more ambiguous is the appraisal of having having one of the team’s best players push as hard as Noah does. Work ethic can offer an emotional leadership all its own—a sort that only enriches the messages that Noah might have for his teammates over the course of a game or a season. When he speaks (or, more often, screams), they listen. That’s as true because of how Noah plays as who he is, making the all-out nature of his game all the more vital to his career prospects. – R.M.
2014-15: 7.2 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 44.5 FG%
Advanced: 15.3 PER, Win Shares: 5.6, +1.09 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
42Goran DragicHeat | Guard | Last year: 35
In a game where so many guards attack in straight lines, Dragic’s drives are more serpentine. He really isn’t quite fast enough to explain the space he manages to create. By slithering through openings and taking angles that no defender would expect, Dragic gives himself enough of a window to attack the basket or knock down a step-back jumper. Every stunt and spin he executes is proof of what good footwork can do for an inspired ballhandler.
The key is in the downhill. Freeing up Dragic from his man with a high screen allows him to build momentum against a backpedaling big. If the guard’s recovery is anything but prompt, a quick cross or inside-out dribble could shake the help or draw open a passing angle. Dragic primarily looks to score, but does a fine, functional job of kicking to the open man. All of the basic qualities one would look for in a lead ballhandler are there: the creativity, the touch, the awareness of his surroundings. Dragic simply suffers from being good at his job without being especially great—a relative demerit given the NBA’s wealth of terrific point guards. – R.M.
2014-15: 16.3 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.5 RPG, 50.1 FG%, 34.7 3P%
Advanced: 17.4 PER, Win Shares: 6.8, -0.34 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
41Jeff TeagueHawks | Guard | Last year: 92
Experience has made Teague a more patient player, which is to say that it made him a better one. The young guard who moved faster than his brain could follow is gone. In his stead is a smooth practitioner of the pick-and-roll who waits for his screen to be properly set and pauses briefly before exploding into action. That recalibration steadied the Hawks and brought Teague to All-Stardom last year, as well as a career-best campaign at the helm of a successful offense and top defense.
While Atlanta might not seem to run a point-guard-driven system, Teague played an important possession-to-possession role as the player most qualified to make plays off the bounce. Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll might continue a play in progress and Al Horford and Paul Millsap may exploit certain bigs with quick drives. However, it was Teague that set sequences in motion by giving up the ball early and accepting that many possessions would come back to him. He wound up as the leader in usage among the team’s vaunted starters while playing in the trusting style Mike Budenholzer asked of him.
If a team really wanted to let Teague loose they could do so while expecting solid results. Atlanta simply preferred another way and showed how Teague might benefit from participation in a more collaborative system. His buy-in signifies coachability and bodes well for a 27-year-old still looking to progress within his controlled game. – R.M.
2014-15: 15.9 PPG, 7.0 APG, 2.5 RPG, 46 FG%, 34.3 3P%
Advanced: 20.6 PER, Win Shares: 7.7, +1.87 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
40Pau GasolBulls | Forward | Last year: 49
Pau Gasol hopped into a time machine in 2014–15, posting his best PER since 2010–11, his most Win Shares since 2010–11 and earning his first All-Star and All-NBA selections since, you guessed it, 2010–11. The turnaround was somewhat surprising, given that the Spanish 7-footer celebrated his 35th birthday this summer, but it wasn’t totally out of the blue.
Gasol made a thoughtful choice in leaving the Lakers for the Bulls in 2014. Gasol knew he would be in line for a central role and big minutes in the Windy City, and injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah only magnified his importance to the team concept. Plus, moving from the stronger West to the weaker East is always a smart career decision, especially for veteran big men.
When all was said and done, Gasol joined Kings center DeMarcus Cousins as the only players to average 18/11 last season. Even more remarkably, Gasol held up for 78 games and nearly 2,700 minutes under demanding coach Tom Thibodeau after missing 20-plus games due to assorted injuries in each of the previous two seasons. The injury bug did finally bite during Chicago’s second-round playoff series against Cleveland, as Gasol suffered a left hamstring strain that helped swing the outcome in the Cavaliers’ favor.
Gasol’s fit in Chicago was better than L.A., clearly, but it wasn’t ideal. Offensively, the Bulls were happy to welcome a polished scoring threat that could get it done in the paint and at the elbow. Defensively, Gasol’s presence was a little more problematic, and Noah wasn’t able to provide adequate cover due to ongoing injury issues. Indeed, the Gasol/Noah tandem often looked clunky, and their combined presence made for a cramped court on offense and mismatches on defense. New coach Fred Hoiberg will need to reconsider how to best use the two players, weighing the benefits of their length and passing abilities against smaller looks that might offer greater room for the guards to operate and a little more perimeter potency. The upcoming season represents a contract year for Gasol, who holds a $7.8 million player option for 2016–17. One final major payday will be waiting if he can repeat last season’s Back to the Future act. – B.G.
2014-15: 18.5 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.9 BPG, 49.4 FG%
Advanced: 22.7 PER, Win Shares: 10.4, +2.30 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
39Rudy GobertJazz | Center | Last year: —
It took just 37 games as a starter last season for Gobert to make an upstart case for Defensive Player of the Year. Utah just so happened to rank as the best defensive team in the league from the moment of Gobert’s promotion. The causality is transparent. According to a metric created by Nylon Calculus, no player saved more points at the rim in the regular season; Gobert was not only positioned well to contest a ton of opponent attempts but allowed a league-low 40.4% on those shots. No one in the NBA has yet figured out what to do with the 23-year-old eraser, who in two brief seasons has risen from prospect of intrigue to undeniable stalwart.
Gobert is choosy enough to understand when to stay down and bold enough to challenge a power dunker as they pull back the hammer. Length allows him to split the difference. There are many possessions where Gobert, who has a 9’7” standing reach, is able to snuff out an attempt while staying square and planted. This keeps him agile in case the offense bails out, able to respond to a quick dump-off pass or an unexpected change in direction. When he does leave his feet, Gobert does a first-rate job of tracking his block to collect the rebound. That kind of follow-through is rare. It’s uncommon enough that a player who swats (in a literal sense, as opposed to blocking shots with vertical extension) as many shots as Gobert manages to keep so many inbounds, much less chase them down to complete the defensive play.
Unsurprisingly, Gobert’s diligence on the boards translates more broadly. He rated as one of the best rebounders in the league last season on both sides of the ball, yielding top-five standing in total rebound percentage. Those rebounds he collected on the offensive end doubled as a crucial source of offense. Nearly a third of Gobert’s points last season came off of put-backs and the like—a ratio expressive of his wealth of second-chance points and dearth of other scoring opportunities. Height and athleticism don’t always translate to offense so easily. At the moment, Gobert scores little for his finite accessibility. If he isn’t given the ball at just the right time and within a specific distance of the rim, he doesn’t have the repertoire to convert. Give him time; a player good enough to qualify for the top 40 prior to his third season has earned a little latitude. – R.M.
2014-15: 8.4 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 60.4 FG%
Advanced: 21.6 PER, Win Shares: 9.3, +1.97 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
38Brook LopezNets | Center | Last year: 36
Posting up is an important part of Lopez’s game but hardly the sum of it. With time, he’s diversified. More of his offensive usage now comes from rolling to the rim rather than working with his back to the basket—a quiet change that dramatically alters what kind of role Lopez could occupy. Efficient, high-volume post play demands a tailored structure. What Lopez has become is more flexible to the minute-to-minute needs of a modern NBA team.
That’s especially important in light of Lopez’s injury history and the ill-fated health of 7-footers in general. Building an offense around Lopez is risky business. Using him as a prominent piece in a more adaptable system, on the other hand, allows a team to benefit from his reliable scoring (21.2 points per 36 minutes last season on 51.3% shooting from the field) without leaning too heavily on his structural function. Lopez will post some, roll plenty, and cut to the rim opposite dribble penetration. He’ll score well alongside bit players and superstars alike depending on the nature of what’s needed.
What Lopez needs in return is the right kind of frontcourt counterpart. His only option in pick-and-roll coverage is to drop back, meaning that he’s best complemented by a forward who can cover lots of ground and handle more mobile assignments. Lopez can still contribute on that end when he’s kept in the right places; being as tall as he is allows him to get in the way of many possessions and challenge relatively well around the basket. Some help on the boards may be in order as well, even in the wake of Lopez’s best rebounding season in years. His cleaning of the glass is more underwhelming than catastrophic. Lopez grabbed a greater percentage of total rebounds than Marc Gasol and Al Horford did last season, though ultimately he ranks low enough (59th among players to log at least 1,000 minutes) for it to register some level of concern. – R.M.
2014-15: 17.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 51.3%
Advanced: 22.7 PER, Win Shares: 7.0, -0.60 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
37Derrick FavorsJazz | Forward | Last year: 79
Grizzlies guard Mike Conley has been the NBA’s reigning “most underrated” player for two or three years now, a length of time that really should invalidate the title. So let’s nominate a new candidate: Derrick Favors. The Jazz big man fits this bill precisely for so many reasons. He plays in Utah, he’s a member of a young team that hasn’t turned the corner (but soon will), his teammates Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert hog the spotlight, his rise has been steady not meteoric, and he gets lost in the shuffle in a Western Conference that is stacked with future Hall of Famers and perennial All-Stars at his position.
Those are all the reasons no one ever talks about Favors. Here are the reasons they should. Favors, 24, was one of just nine players to average 16/8 last season; he was the second-youngest member of that group, behind Anthony Davis, and seven of his fellow members have been All-Stars during their careers. Thanks to his productivity, efficient shooting, and strong two-way play, Favors is the rare under-25 player who aces every major advanced stat, ranking 14th overall in PER among minutes-qualified players, 25th in Win Shares, 37th in Real Plus-Minus and 31st in WARP. Favors is a plus player on both sides: Utah’s offensive rating was 4.6 points better with him on the court last season and Utah’s defensive rating was 6.2 points better with Favors once a midseason trade freed him from the burden of Enes Kanter. Favors is big, strong and his presence is felt: he commands attention on the block on the offensive end with a workmanlike offensive repertoire and he is a strong post defender who blocks his share of shots and can live on an island without panicking. Favors is reliable and improving: he’s never missed more than 10 games in a season, which stands as a nice feather in the cap for a young big playing rotation minutes, and he’s upped his per-game output each year for five straight seasons, even though Utah has undergone significant roster turnover and multiple coaching changes during that time.
It’s probably best not to hold your breath waiting for a national awakening about Favors. Even if coach Quin Snyder is able to strike the right balance and the Jazz qualify for the playoffs, Hayward (a legit All-Star candidate who is by far the team’s best all-around offensive player) and Gobert (a strong Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defensive candidate) are sure to garner most of the praise. That’s fine and totally understandable, just don’t completely forget about the third member of Utah’s rising triumvirate. – B.G.
2014-15: 16 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 52.5 FG%
Advanced: 21.8 PER, Win Shares: 8.3, +3.40 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
36Tyson ChandlerSuns | Center | Last year: 39
Phoenix pursued Chandler this summer in part because, as GM Ryan McDonough tells it, the Suns had heard through the grapevine that then-free agent LaMarcus Aldridge had always wanted to play with him. And why wouldn’t he? Chandler is the kind of teammate any competitor would love: fiery, relentless and deeply disciplined. The worst that can be said of Chandler is his play sometimes teeters with nagging injury. Playing the way Chandler does brings its share of strains and tweaks, the sum of which can tax a terrific two-way center to lesser form.
Otherwise, Chandler’s team is guaranteed a player very comfortable and quite effective within the role he’s asked to play. Defense remains his calling card. Any coach in the league could find comfort in the notion of Chandler commanding the back line of the defense. His help will be punctual and informed by the scouting report. His post defense will be physical and irksome. Chandler will be quick off the ground to challenge any shot in his vicinity and still rank among the best rebounders in the league (last season he finished sixth in offensive and defensive rebounding rate).
And somehow Chandler might be even better on offense. Scoring itself has never been Chandler’s forté. Where his presence pays off is in its gravity—the effect that Chandler has when rolling down the middle of the lane or lurking on the baseline. Those who stray from him risk a lob to one of the NBA’s best finishers, often at an angle no other defender could disrupt. Any other option would involve bailing on defensive principles when they ought be in effect. Chandler knows just where to be to force defenders into difficult decisions on a second-by-second basis. In doing so, he stretches the value of his dunks and athleticism to their absolute limit. – R.M.
2014-15: 10.3 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 66.6 FG%
Advanced: 20.1 PER, Win Shares: 10.3, +4.58 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
35Andre DrummondPistons | Center | Last year: 37
For three seasons, the hype and anticipation surrounding Pistons center Andre Drummond has exceeded the results. The 6’10” Drummond, who just turned 22 in August, has the size, strength and athletic tools to be a franchise center. But, as tends to happen with young big men, his development has been full of starts and stops.
While he’s established himself as the league’s premier offensive rebounder and posted impressive block rates, he’s also struggled to finish consistently in the paint, he’s led the league twice in personal fouls, he’s compiled such a horrific free-throw shooting percentage that he makes Dwight Howard look like John Stockton, and he’s still a ways from mastering the finer points of life as a back-line defender. Predictably, there have been consistency issues too: there’s the Drummond who posted two 20/20 games in 2014–15, joining DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan as the only players to accomplish the feat multiple times, and then there’s the Drummond who, too often, couldn’t seem to buy a basket.
Slowly but surely, Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy has reshaped a flawed roster to better suit Drummond, ditching space-killing big men Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, adding a pick-and-roll point guard in Reggie Jackson, and upgrading his perimeter options in hopes of mimicking the Howard-centric roster he fielded during his days coaching the Magic. These are all fantastic developments for Drummond, who should see an uptick in his minutes, touches, responsibilities and comfort factor next season. – B.G.
2014-15: 13.8 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 51.4 FG%
Advanced: 21.4 PER, Win Shares: 7.7, +0.74 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
34Kyle LowryRaptors | Guard | Last year: 30
Much like his Raptors, which charged out of the gate at a franchise record-setting rate, Kyle Lowry absolutely burst out of the block in 2014–15. And, much like the Raptors, which fell flat on their faces in the playoffs, Lowry just wasn’t able to sustain his early success. The splits are pretty startling. Before the All-Star break, Lowry averaged 18.6 points and 7.2 assists with a 53.4% True Shooting Percentage. After the All-Star break, as he battled a back injury and the toll of heavy minutes and huge usage, Lowry’s numbers dipped to 15.1 points and 5.4 assists, and his True Shooting Percentage fell to 50.3%. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the All-Star starter and one-time All-NBA candidate looked like he could barely move.
Was this drastic turn of events a case of karma striking back at the Raptors for their shameless, overbearing “Hashtag NBA Ballot” All-Star voting campaign on Lowry’s behalf? Probably not, but the franchise should really consider a little restraint in 2016 now that Lowry has been there and done that. Jokes aside, Lowry appears to be flipping his second-half slide into serious off-season motivation. If Instagram is to be believed, the wide-framed, 6’0” point guard will return for 2015–16 in a leaner, meaner package. That’s a scary thought for opponents, given how relentless and commanding he was through 50-ish games last season.
A busy summer for GM Masai Ujiri saw the addition of DeMarre Carroll, a veteran 3-and-D forward, two new back-ups for Lowry, Cory Joseph and rookie Delon Wright, and a lucrative extension for center Jonas Valanciunas. Although Toronto’s roster overhaul seemed primarily focused on improving its perimeter defense, the newcomers may help alleviate some portion of the strain that ultimately overwhelmed Lowry last year. As the Raptors’ top talent and primary creator, Lowry, 29, must enter the 2016 postseason at closer to full strength if Toronto wants to advance out of the first round for just the second time in franchise history. He’s proven that he can captain a top-notch offense and make the All-Star Game. Now, he needs to prove he can properly manage what could be, in an ideal world, a 100-game season. – B.G.
2014-15: 17.8 PPG, 6.8 APG, 4.7 RPG, 41.2 FG%, 33.8 3P%
Advanced: 19.3 PER, Win Shares: 7.1, +3.83 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
33Eric BledsoeSuns | Guard | Last year: 33
Eric Bledsoe is a point guard, unless you’d rather him be a shooting guard. A shot creator, unless you’d prefer that he be a cutter. A counter to opposing ballhandlers, unless he’s needed to lock and trail elsewhere. That elasticity is rooted in truly remarkable athleticism. A 6’1” guard shouldn’t be able to bend between positions and responsibilities so easily as Bledsoe does, yet in the case of a miniature bulldozer who moves like a blur, most traditional rules seem not to apply.
There might not be a point guard in the league who can match Bledsoe physically. His advantage is most evident on defense, given that getting a step on the 25-year-old guard takes a full possession’s work and powering through him is all but impossible. Bledsoe has the strength required to fight through screens in any top defensive assignment and the speed to close the gap that follows. There’s no shedding him once he’s locked in.
Based on total defensive impact (individual matchup, disruption of an opponent’s progress, control of the passing lanes, help responsibilities, rebounding, etc.), Bledsoe ranks as one of the top guards in the league. His offense is also oddly understated for a lightning-quick guard putting up some impressive numbers. Only 16 players in the league matched Bledsoe’s scoring output (17 points per game) at the same true shooting (55.5%) or better last season. Every guard among them (Harden, Curry, Irving, Lillard, Paul) except Bledsoe was an All-Star. – R.M.
2014-15: 17 PPG, 6.1 APG, 5.2 RPG, 44.7 FG%, 32.4 3P%
Advanced: 18.4 PER, Win Shares: 7.0, +3.46 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
32Paul MillsapHawks | Forward | Last year: 34
Compared to his fellow All-Stars, Hawks forward Paul Millsap isn’t the biggest, the fastest or the strongest, and his no-nonsense style doesn’t inspire adulation worthy of the leading scorer on a 60-win team. Nevertheless, Millsap excels at making basketball look easy in so many different ways. The former second-round pick fits like a glove in Mike Budenholzer’s pass-heavy, spread-oriented offense, and his inside/outside versatility is the key that unlocks Atlanta’s pick-your-poison offense.
Millsap, 30, made his name in Utah as a durable, if undersized, power forward with a high motor and the ability to score in the paint. Since arriving in Atlanta in one of the best signings of 2013, Millsap has not only added a credible three-point shot to his arsenal but he’s also hit new high-water marks in assists. With the Hawks, Millsap is encouraged to roam: he might grab a defensive rebound and push the tempo himself, he might slide from the block to the perimeter (or vice versa) as a play develops, and he is a triple-threat when isolated in space, as he can attack hard to the hoop, get to a preferred spot for a jumper, or play the drive-and-kick game with Atlanta’s shooters. Defensively, Millsap’s game is similarly well-rounded: he can defend multiple positions with the strength to handle fours and the quickness to switch onto wings, he can handle the front or back of the pick-and-roll, and he forces more than his share of turnovers with good hands and instincts.
The breadth of Millsap’s contributions and his lack of major holes helped Atlanta finish as the league’s No. 6 offense and No. 7 defense, and they made him a favorite of the major advanced stats. Last season, he graded out well in PER (36th), Win Shares (26th) Real Plus-Minus (14th) and WARP (19th), even though Atlanta’s commitment to the team concept tends to curb his individual numbers and Budenholzer actively limited Millsap’s playing time. After helping lead the Hawks to their first Eastern Conference finals appearance, Millsap was rewarded with the biggest payday of his career: a three-year, $59 million contract that roughly doubled his salary and made him Atlanta’s highest-paid player. He’s worth every penny. – B.G.
2014-15: 16.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 47.6 FG%, 35.6 3P%
Advanced: 20.0 PER, Win Shares: 8.3, +5.09 RPM align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">2014-15: 12.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap;">Advanced: 14.9 PER, Win Shares: 2.3, -0.45 RPM
31Gordon HaywardJazz | Forward | Last year: 57
Gordon Hayward has blossomed into an efficient alpha scorer who is knocking on the door of All-Star status. Hayward, 25, has been a quality all-around playmaker for a few years now, but he has faced some major handicaps: he’s played on young teams, he’s been stuck without great point guards, he’s been asked to do too much, and he spent much of his early career playing for an uncreative offensive mind. However, coach Quin Snyder’s first season saw Utah improve from 25th to 15th in offensive efficiency. Hayward benefited from higher-quality looks, improved flow, more catch-and-shoot opportunities, and a new pick-and-roll finisher in Rudy Gobert. The Jazz were 6.6 points better offensively with Hayward on the court last season, as he helped compensate for a season-ending shoulder injury to Alec Burks and uninspiring contributions from Trey Burke.
30Dwyane WadeHeat | Guard | Last year: 20
With Dwyane Wade comes the inevitability that he will miss some games due to injury and others for the sake of preventative maintenance. His return validates the trouble. Wade is still creating like a star in the downturn of his career, culling 24.3 points and 5.5 assists per 36 minutes from Miami’s glacially paced offense. Not bad at all for a player who seemed to wither near the end of the 2014 Finals.
Wade endures now by relying more than ever on his footwork and body control. Most of the possessions Wade conducts are half-court efforts—slowed to a careful setup that the veteran guard can then manipulate. An isolated defender will be backed down or screened off, depending on Wade’s preferences. Once in scoring position, he’ll test their discipline. Wade’s pump fake might be his most famous deception but he’s just as smooth with a crossover, hesitation, or quick shimmy from the post. All are compelling; defenders have such respect for Wade that many can be baited out of the play for a single moment. The Wade of old would take that moment and catapult toward the rim. This current version is more likely to toss up a turnaround jumper or leap into the duped defender. For the former those moves were mere tools, but for the latter they are a desperate need.
It all works well enough to keep an offense rolling. Wade’s defense, unfortunately, hasn’t aged quite so gracefully. Every passing year seems to bring further deterioration of Wade’s effort and focus on that end of the floor. He just can’t be troubled. On his better days he might get up to a jog when getting back in transition defense. A lazy trot is more likely. Wade still has flashback stretches of forced turnovers and lockdown coverage in him when he applies himself, though the elective no-shows make him difficult to rely on at this point. – R.M.
2014-15: 21.5 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.5 RPG, 47 FG%, 28.4 3P%
Advanced: 21.4 PER, Win Shares: 3.5, -0.34 RPM
29DeAndre JordanClippers | Center | Last year: 38
The grand disappointment of DeAndre Jordan’s free agency was that the circus wound up completely overshadowing what is one hell of a success story. Jordan, 27, has spent his entire seven-year career with the Clippers, raising his profile from second-round project to All-NBA and All-Defensive selection. He survived multiple lottery seasons and the downfall of Donald Sterling to emerge as the NBA’s leading rebounder and a crazy-efficient finisher who is so durable that he can compare himself to Wolverine without eliciting laughter (he hasn’t missed a game in four-plus seasons, after all). Yes, there have been playoff disappointments and plenty of deserved barbs about his poor foul shooting, but this summer should have been Jordan’s time to shine in the media spotlight and soak up the feel-good recruiting pitches.
Instead, he made a mess of it. Stuck between his dreams of becoming the face of a franchise in his home state of Texas and continuing on with a winning formula in Southern California, Jordan chose both, which isn’t allowed. His final decision—spurning the Mavericks for the Clippers—was the right basketball move executed in horribly wrong fashion, and his emoji-laden change of heart sets him up for years of jokes at his expense.
Jordan’s return coupled with L.A.’s bench upgrades sets up the Clippers for serious title contention. With Jordan in the middle on offense, constantly looming as an over-the-top dunk threat, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have more room to work, and the Clippers’ wing shooters enjoy cleaner looks. His ability to draw attention in pick-and-roll scenarios and pound the offensive glass made him a critical component of L.A.’s No. 1 offense, even though he averaged less than seven shots a game and attempted just five shots outside the paint all season. With Jordan in the middle on defense, L.A. has enough interior integrity to make up for some of its weaker individual defensive pieces, it has a shot-blocking threat to dissuade paint attacks off the dribble, and it has a vacuum-like defensive rebounder to cut short its opponents’ possessions. Put together that entire package of skills and the Clippers bring back perhaps the most athletically-gifted center in the NBA, a player who ranked in the top 10 in Win Shares and WARP and in the top-25 in PER and Real Plus-Minus. No wonder Doc Rivers and company went by plane, train and automobile to make sure he stayed in the fold. – B.G.
2014-15: 11.5 PPG, 15.0 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 71.0 FG%
Advanced: 21.0 PER, Win Shares: 12.8, +4.46 RPM
28Dirk NowitzkiMavs | Forward | Last year: 14
Things aren’t as dire for Dirk Nowitzki as they might have seemed when the Rockets were attacking him for sport in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. That matchup was rough on him and his team’s circumstances were even rougher. Not only was Tyson Chandler in poor shape, but Dallas’s guards were lost in the processes of defending the pick-and-roll to the point that Nowitzki was isolated and exploited.
All of which isn’t meant to pardon Nowitzki entirely. This is the slowest he’s ever been as a pro. Some settings will serve him better than others, but even the best of circumstances won’t do much for his lumbering gait. The last two seasons have been a concession of sorts for Nowitzki, who at 37 years old has ceded chief responsibility of Dallas’s offense. This is healthy. His body just doesn’t take the shoving of post defense as well as it used to, turning every back-down possession into more of an ordeal. Still he gets his share—one doesn’t just put that gorgeous fadeaway jumper to bed—albeit without the expectation of being a funnel for offense most every trip down the floor. Instead, Nowitzki’s revised role strikes a compromise between go-to scorer and irresistible decoy that makes perfect sense in pacing out a long season. Defenders still trip over themselves in fear of leaving Nowitzki open. They still lunge desperately to contest his jumper to no avail. Dirk is still Dirk, and until his jumper stops falling, that means enough to overwhelm even a glaring defensive shortfall. – R.M.
2014-15: 17.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 45.9 FG%, 38.0 3P%
Advanced: 19.2 PER, Win Shares: 7.2, +0.62 RPM
27Mike ConleyGrizzlies | Guard | Last year: 32
To the casual observer, Mike Conley might come off restrained—a floor general who keeps himself and his offense under control at all times. This is partly true. To accomplish that goal, Conley relies on all manners of tricky off-the-dribble techniques. Rarely will his name come up in the discussion of the best ball handlers in the NBA for the reason that his repertoire might be so functional as to appear standard. Conley plays with such an ease about him that it seems any point guard should be able to do what he does.
Clearly they cannot. Conley uses every move at his disposal as a means to an end, be it a low, quick crossover or a surprise off-hand floater. Initiating with that kind of purpose keeps the offense moving as it should—an exercise in style as substance. A player that strong in the game’s concepts could run a wide variety of offensive systems to sufficiency. In Memphis alone we’ve seen Conley do well with several different approaches. He’s as good throwing on-target entry passes and spotting up on the perimeter as he is running pick-and-rolls or elbow series hand-offs. It’s all in the toolbox, ready to be used as his coach prefers.
Conley cements his place as one of the top point guards by surrendering nothing on defense. It hardly matters that he’s 6’1”; Conley is so nimble that he can play up and into opposing ballhandlers while maintaining prime defensive position, keeping his man from getting to their preferred hand or angle. Gambling isn’t much of a concern. Covering the ball is a long game for Conley, won by inching closer and closer to the ball and frustrating an opponent with denial. His restraint is matched opposite to that of a stifled ballhandler. Often enough, Conley wins. – R.M.
2014-15: 15.8 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.0 RPG, 44.6 FG%, 38.6 3P%
Advanced: 18.6 PER, Win Shares: 6.8, +2.11 RPM
26Klay ThompsonWarriors | Guard | Last year: 54
Sharing a backcourt with MVP Stephen Curry, Warriors guard Klay Thompson had a front-row seat to the greatest show on hardwood, but he hardly sat back and watched. As the constant, jabbing threat of Curry’s brilliance softened up opposing defenses, Thompson rocked back on his heels to deliver haymakers. The most memorable, of course, was a record-breaking 37-point third quarter against the Kings that still, to this day, seems borderline impossible. But Thompson’s fuse was always lit: he notched four 40-point games, third-most in the NBA and one more than Curry, and he ranked sixth among minutes-qualified players in points per 36 minutes.
As a shooter, the 25-year-old Thompson is already in elite company. Last season, his first under Steve Kerr’s fun-and-gun approach to offense, Thompson shot a blistering 43.9% from deep while attempting 7.1 threes per game. The only player in NBA history to match that? Curry, of course, who did it in 2012–13 and 2014–15. Thompson, it should be noted, is more than a one-trick pony: he showed improvement as a finisher and got to the foul line more often last season, and he did his part to fulfill Kerr’s mandate to keep the ball moving. For such a prolific scorer, Thompson displays an impressive diligence on defense, works hard to get through screens (when on and off the ball), moves laterally well against ballhandlers, and closes out hard to contest shots. Although his defensive versatility is easy to overlook on a Warriors roster loaded with flexible cover men, Thompson can guard ones, twos and threes, which proved to be a huge asset during Golden State’s title run.
Thompson isn’t without his faults and limitations, of course. While he’s ideally cast as a complementary option rather than as a No. 1 scorer, he found himself in foul trouble at various points during the playoffs, is prone to moments of inattentiveness, and occasionally disappears (or at least fades from the foreground), most notably during the final four games of the Finals.
That said, Thompson is an extraordinary asset: he’s missed just six games during his four-year career, he’s a floor-spacer of the highest order, his scoring comes easily and doesn’t require compromises on the other end, his prime will coincide with the primes of Curry and Draymond Green, and his contract (four years, $69 million) will only look better as the NBA’s salary cap continues to rise. With Golden State returning its entire starting lineup and virtually all of its core from last year, Thompson is well-positioned to light it up again in 2015–16. — B.G.
2014-15: 21.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, 46.3 FG%, 43.9 3P%
Advanced: 20.8 PER, Win Shares: 8.8, +3.64 RPM
25Serge IbakaThunder | Forward | Last year: 19
NBA teams are often challenged in their pursuit of two traditionally competing interests: The space needed for an offense to flow smoothly and the size necessary to keep a defense consistent. Ibaka is an anomaly for the way his game merges both aims without compromise. Stretch bigs aren’t typically All-NBA defenders and first-rate shot blockers don’t generally have Ibaka’s shooting touch. In fact, Ibaka was the only player of his kind last season in terms of making three-pointers (1.2 per game) and blocking shots (5.8%). The closest three-point shooters blocked shots about half as often as Ibaka and no other high-level shot blocker made more than two three-pointers all season. Ibaka made 77.
While that combination might seem like a cherry-picked novelty, this particular intersection of skills is actually quite meaningful. Many of the flawed bigs in the NBA have interior offensive skill sets without the means to sufficiently protect the rim. Ibaka is the perfect complement and perhaps the only one this side of Anthony Davis able to give those players room to operate while still covering for their weaknesses. The same concept applies to aggressive, dribble-driving guards who aren’t the most disciplined defenders or poor-shooting wings who bring some other skill to the table. These archetypes should sound awfully familiar. It is the virtue of Ibaka’s game that balances challenging pieces and the Thunder have no shortage of them.
Of course, a team of different construction could make good use of Ibaka’s talents without stretching him quite so thin. His game was engineered to be low maintenance. Years of playing alongside a pair of high-usage superstars has made Ibaka accustomed to spot-up jumpers, rolls to the rim, and hard runs in transition as the dominant sources of his offense. It takes a particular player to be at peace with that kind of role while playing hard and keeping patient. Ibaka—in addition to being an astounding athlete and amazing talent—is just that. – R.M.
2014-15: 14.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 47.6 FG%, 37.6 3P% Advanced: 16.6 PER, Win Shares: 5.6, +3.46 RPM
24Damian LillardBlazers | Guard | Last year: 22
The last man standing in Rip City is Damian Lillard, who becomes the face of a Blazers team that lost four starters, five of its top-six scorers, and eight of the 13 players who logged at least 500 minutes last season. The difficulty level for Lillard has been cranked up from “Hard” to “We’re trying to give you a nervous breakdown.”
To their credit, Lillard and the Blazers managed the rough transition about as well as could be expected. He took a page out of the Kevin Durant playbook by agreeing to sign a five-year, $120 million max rookie extension without a player option on the final season as a show of loyalty. He flooded the Internet streets with photos from Special Olympics events, basketball camps, Adidas released a forest-themed colorway for his signature shoe meant to appeal to his local fans, and he said all the right things about assuming the burden of being the No. 1 guy. Lillard even coined a rap alter-ego, “Dame DOLLA,” to provide his fans with the opportunity to hear him rhyme over other people’s beats.
Savvy PR and maximum accessibility does help calm the nerves during the summer, but it doesn’t count for anything once the games start to count. So, how good can the first edition Lillard-centric Blazers team be? Or, more to the point, how far will Portland fall after back-to-back 50-win seasons now that LaMarcus Aldridge, the team’s offensive centerpiece, is gone chasing titles in San Antonio? It could get pretty rough. The Blazers will be leaning heavily on less-than-proven commodities while also integrating newcomers who aren’t yet finished products. Perhaps the best-case scenario sees Lillard blasting past expectations on a one-man warpath, a la Russell Westbrook last season, and carrying his young squad to the outskirts of the West’s playoff chase.
But is the 25-year-old Lillard, a two-time All-Star and 2015 All-NBA Third Team selection, up to the task? Maybe. Few players compile statistics like he does: Lillard ranked No. 7 in the NBA in Win Shares and was one of just five players to average 21/4/6 last season (the other four: Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James and Westbrook). Through three seasons, Lillard has yet to miss a game, even though he’s averaged 35-plus minutes every year. Although his bread-and-butter is his outside shot, which he launches so freely off the dribble that it sometimes seems like he’s shooting on a whim, Lillard has made progress to his all-around offensive repertoire by improving mightily as a finisher in the basket area in 2014–15, honing his strong pick-and-roll skills and getting to the line at a good clip.
There are some red flags. Lillard can be a streaky outside shooter, and he finished the season at just 34.3% from outside, the worst mark among the NBA’s super-high-volume three-point shooters (at least six three-point attempts per game). That doesn’t necessarily bode well once he’s the opposition’s primary focus every night, as he will likely face traps and extended pressure in pick-and-rolls while also having less space to work with once he turns the corner. Lillard’s supreme self-confidence exacerbates the highs and lows of his streakiness. In 2013–14, he shot 47.3% overall and 44.2% from deep in clutch situations and famously hit the series-clinching three-pointer against the Rockets to send the Blazers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000. His “Lillard Time” rep as a clutch assassin didn’t consistently manifest itself in 2014–15, as he shot just 34.1% overall and 22.5% from deep in clutch situations. He also struggled mightily from outside throughout the Blazers’ five-game first-round series loss to the Grizzlies. And that was with Aldridge, Lopez and Batum.
The biggest concern of all, though, remains Lillard’s defense, which has drawn heat since he entered the league. There will be no hiding and little help for Lillard in 2015–16: Portland’s backcourt lacks anything resembling a big-time stopper and its young, inside options figure to be a steep drop from the reliable, long, and experienced Aldridge/Lopez combination.
One upside to becoming an undisputed franchise player: you get the glory if things go well. Right now, Lillard trails the likes of Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Westbrook, John Wall and Kyrie Irving on the point guard pecking order, a fact that was reinforced by his experience with USA Basketball. If Portland beats its low-bar expectations this season, Lillard’s case to crack into the top five at his position will be much stronger. – B.G.
2014-15: 21 PPG, 6.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, 43.4 FG%, 34.3 3P%
Advanced: 20.7 PER, Win Shares: 10.67, +3.77 RPM
23Kyrie IrvingCavs | Guard | Last year: 21
A bitter, heartbreaking ending shouldn’t erase the significant progress Kyrie Irving made last season. Remember, this was a promising young point guard—already a two-time All-Star—who hadn’t come close to sniffing .500 and was set to play for his third head coach in four years. This was a player who was asking veteran teammates at the beginning of the season what the playoffs felt like. This was a player who took serious heat for his ball dominance and shaky defense, and a player who was seemingly engaged in a war with Dion Waiters for control of the rock. This was a player who seemed relieved to hand off leadership responsibilities to LeBron James, and who didn’t bring much to the table in terms of experience when it came to striking a functional balance with Cleveland’s third All-Star, Kevin Love. If the new-look Cavaliers were going to disappoint, the most likely explanation was going to be that Irving wasn’t ready for primetime, or that his individual skills didn’t translate properly to a high-performing team.
Once Waiters was removed from the picture—a step that really shouldn’t be overlooked—and once Timofey Mozgov arrived, the table was set for Irving to settle in. He delivered, becoming one of just six players to average 21/5 for the season and becoming the first player since Kobe Bryant in 2006–07 to score 55-plus points in multiple games during the same season.
Those sky-scraping peaks, amazing as they were, weren’t as impressive as the sustained excellence that Cleveland achieved down the stretch. After the All-Star break, the James/Irving/Love trio posted a sensational 111.4 offensive rating and a +12.1 net rating, evidence that very promising things are coming in 2015–16. James is always the first in line to receive credit for such dominant team play, but Irving should get his share of recognition for establishing himself as a strong second option without directly marginalizing Love. Even if everyone can agree that Cleveland can get more from Love next season, increasing his involvement won’t require prying the ball out of Irving’s grasp.
Nagging injuries caught up to Irving during the playoffs, costing him two games in the East finals and keeping him from playing to full form in a number of other games. The circumstances of his final injury couldn’t have been more devastating: Irving went down in overtime of Game 1 of the Finals, after scoring 23 points and making the best defensive play of his young career with a spectacular block on Stephen Curry late in regulation. The diagnosis came back as a fractured kneecap, ending Irving’s season and dealing a major blow to Cleveland’s title hopes. Irving has dealt with a slew of injuries, dating back to his one season at Duke, but nothing could prepare him for this. “You can hear in the tone of my voice that I’m a little worried,” he told reporters afterward, wearing his emotion like a second jersey.
A Cleveland.com report that hinted Irving might miss some time at the start of the 2015–16 season also cost him a few spots in this ranking, as his initial recovery time implied that he would be good to go after an off-season of rehabilitation. Big picture, though, Irving looks like a fast-rising stock, one who proved quite a bit in 2014–15 and who, through no fault of his own, left everybody wanting more. – BG
2014-15: 21.7 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.2 RPG, 46.8 FG%, 41.5 FG%
Advanced: 21.5 PER, Win Shares: 10.4, +3.40 RPM
22Chris BoshHeat | Forward | Last year: 18
The pre-LeBron version of Chris Bosh was a certified superstar, the LeBron-era version of Bosh was one of the best all-around third options in NBA history, and the post-LeBron version of Bosh is, well, still to be determined. By any standard, last year was a false start, both for Bosh, whose season ended abruptly in mid-February due to the discovery of blood clots on one of his lungs, and for the Heat, which missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. As expected, Bosh’s scoring average and usage rate picked up significantly to compensate for LeBron James’s departure and he earned All-Star honors, but it wasn’t a clean return to Bosh’s Toronto form. Miami was just 19–25 with Bosh in the lineup, and he registered little impact on the Heat’s mediocre offensive and defensive efficiency numbers when he was on the court.
There were plenty of extenuating circumstances: Dwyane Wade and Josh McRoberts missed significant time due to injuries. Bosh never suited up with Miami’s major trade deadline acquisition, starting point guard Goran Dragic, and he played only 18 games alongside breakout center Hassan Whiteside. Regardless, Bosh’s performance was at least a little troubling given the expectations that come with a five-year, $118 million contract.
One doesn’t need to look too hard to find reasons for optimism. The biggest, by far: Bosh, 31, is reportedly taking part in off-season workouts and is expected to participate in Heat training camp. The hidden benefit of Bosh’s extended absence was that it gave him an extended period of rest after four straight trips to the Finals. Historically, Bosh has been pretty durable, as he never previously missed more than eight games during his Heat tenure. In theory, Dragic and Bosh should make for an excellent pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop pairing, and Dragic stands as the best point guard with whom Bosh has shared the court. The Bosh/Whiteside duo registered a +2.1 net rating last season, which isn’t the worst place to start, and it’s hard to believe that Bosh and Wade will only appear in 28 games together, as they did last season.
Even if everything falls into place more or less as expected, there’s still a sense that Bosh will need to take his game to a higher level compared to last season for Miami to achieve meaningful success. His versatility, mobility, sniper-like shooting from the elbow and three-point range are all plusses, but he needs to be a more present and efficient inside threat, as less than 20% of his attempts came in the basket area and he finished less than 52% of those looks, numbers that are way down from his James-aided production during the Big 3’s peak years.
His 12-year career has already produced 10 All-Star selections, six 20-plus points-per-game campaigns, and two titles, and it will likely land him in the Hall of Fame. Pending a medical hang-up, Bosh should have plenty of high-level basketball left in his tank. – B.G.
2014-15: 21.1 PPG, 7 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 46 FG%, 37.5 3P%
Advanced: 19.8 PER, Win Shares: 3.6, +0.68 RPM
21Al HorfordHawks | Center | Last year: 25
Some NBA teams play in a way that’s fast and free, others in a way that’s slow and structured. All could make great use of Al Horford, a terrific big man whose game knows no stylistic bounds. Versatility comes naturally for a player who does almost everything well; ask Horford to spread the floor, defend in space, post up, hit the glass, set screens, facilitate offense, wall off the rim, work the baseline, or run the floor and you’ll get the same blanket capability. To call him a ‘jack of all trades’ undersells the point. Horford is so balanced as a player he’s virtually without weakness—an amazing resource for the purposes of team building.
Plus, Horford elevates his all-purpose game with specific mastery. No player in the league converted from midrange at such high volume and so high a percentage (48.4%) last season, save Chris Paul. That kind of shooting changes the internal calculus of a team’s offense and, by extension, demands adjustment on the part of an opposing defense. Many defensive schemes would treat an opposing center lining up an 18-footer as a relative victory. With Horford involved it’s nearly a layup, giving his team a productive last resort on any possession that doesn’t go quite as intended.
Horford also happens to rate as one of the most effective playmakers regardless of position: a high-yield, low-turnover savant with a strong grasp of the bigger picture. Plenty of bigs can lead a specific cutter into open space or execute a particular set to perfection. What separates Horford is his practical ability to read the entire floor as a possession develops. An offense is well-set when Horford overlooks it from the high post, particularly because of the way space lends itself to a variety of screens and hand-offs that can pivot the All-Star’s utility on a dime. – R.M.
2014-15: 15.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.3 BPG, 53.8 FG%
Advanced: 21.4 PER, Win Shares: 8.7, +2.14 RPM
20Paul GeorgePacers | Forward | Last year: —
Pacers forward Paul George is a nightmare to rank in this exercise because he fits into two of the toughest categories to gauge: up-and-coming stars who haven’t quite peaked yet, and players beset by unexpected, potentially career-altering injuries. George was left off last year’s list entirely because his horrific compound leg fracture, sustained during a USA Basketball summer exhibition in advance of the FIBA World Cup, was expected to keep him out for the 2014–15 season.
Although George did make it back to the court in April, he registered little impact: he appeared in just six games, averaging 15 minutes a night, and the emotional lift provided by his return wasn’t able to bump Indiana into the postseason. Had George been healthy last year, he would have been in line for a top-15 ranking. He had earned All-NBA and All-Defensive honors for the second straight season, he guided the Pacers to the conference finals for the second straight season, and was firmly in the conversation as the best player in the East not named LeBron James.
But what now? At full strength, George is right there with Kawhi Leonard and Carmelo Anthony as the third-best small forward in the NBA, behind James and Kevin Durant. The only players to match his 21/6/3 production in 2013-14 over the last two seasons are A-listers—James, Durant, Anthony, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins—and George graded out well by all the major advanced metrics.
Offensively, George is an explosive athlete who can produce in all of the desired ways: he has a dependable three-point shot, he finishes well enough in the basket area, and he gets to the free-throw line with regularity. While he isn’t the smoothest off-the-dribble creator in isolation and he probably can trim some mid-range fat from his shot selection, George is an efficient lead scoring option who has seemingly embraced that mantle. Still just 25, his best scoring days should still be ahead of him.
There isn’t much, if anything, missing from his toolbox defensively. George is long, active, smart, pesky, aware and committed, and he’s been a major contributor on Pacers teams that led the league in defensive efficiency twice and enjoyed postseason success primarily on the basis of snuffing out their opponents’ attack. Individually, George grades out very well in both defensive rating and Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and he’s right there with the premier defenders at his position. Without George last season, Indiana slipped from No. 1 defensively in 2013–14 to No. 8, and they won 18 fewer games.
As strong as George’s holdover résumé remains, the severity of his injury still casts a shadow. George suffered a calf strain during his brief return to the court in April and had to be carried off the court. He didn’t participate in any of the basketball portions of USA Basketball’s summer minicamp in Las Vegas, although he did tell fans in China of his goal is to be the 2016 MVP. Those lingering concerns, coupled with the uncertainty about how a partial role shift to power forward might impact him physically and a major roster shake-up, caused George to land as the final member of SI’s top 20. Among the players in the 11–20 range, though, George has as good a chance as any to push into the top 10 next season. Few sentiments are universal among NBA fans, but this is one: Bring on the inspiring, tear-jerking “He’s back!” chapter of George’s return as soon as possible. – B.G.
2014-15: 21 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 36.7 FG%, 40.9 FG%
Advanced: 13.0 PER, Win Shares: 0.0, -1.44 RPM
19Dwight HowardRockets | Center | Last year: 9
The extent of Howard’s injury-induced regression since carrying the Magic to the NBA Finals is too often exaggerated. One can decline and still be quite good, particularly when, like Howard, the player in question topped out as the second or third best player in the league at one point. Back and knee injuries have since ended Howard’s claim to that kind of standing, but they’ve left him mobile and explosive enough still to rank as one of the NBA’s finest.
It’s not a coincidence regard for Howard has slipped as his relationship with conventional stardom has grown more complicated. Scoring in bulk from the post has never been the hallmark of Howard’s game, though he was far more successful in that particular area than he was in Houston last season. Some precious balance in Howard’s back-to-the-basket performance tipped for the worse; an underwhelming shooting percentage, bloated turnover rate (fifth-highest among players to register 100 or more post possessions), and inability to convert shooting fouls left Howard a post scorer in volume only. For those who judge Howard based on his ability to dominate the post and produce up to some particular benchmark, his 2014–15 season surely looks like a disappointment.
In reality, Howard’s on-court influence is much more involved. Despite his post-up blunders, Howard still ranked as the second-most efficient scorer from the field last season by effective field goal percentage. He’s still unstoppable on cuts, on the roll, off of rebounds, and in transition—odds and ends which accounted for nearly 40% of Howard’s offensive usage. Only six qualified leaders grabbed a greater percentage of available rebounds and only a handful of players could claim to have made a more significant impact as rim protectors. The days of Howard’s no-conversation-needed Defensive Player of the Year candidacy are over. Even still, the 29-year-old veteran does more smart, disciplined work in containing pick-and-rolls than most casual fans realize. If the sum total of those contributions doesn’t constitute stardom, I know not what does. – R.M.
2014-15: 15.8 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 59.3 FG%
Advanced: 19.2 PER, Win Shares: 3.6, +1.96 RPM
18Jimmy ButlerBulls | Guard | Last year: 98
Last fall, Bulls guard Jimmy Butler cracked up at the memory of himself in high school: a no-namer in small-town Texas who failed to land a D-I offer, bragging to his teammates about how he could score 40 points on Derrick Rose, his class’s No. 1 ranked prospect. Some eight years later, Butler places higher on SI’s “Top 100” list than any of his Chicago teammates, including his backcourt partner, the 2011 MVP. There are “fast rises,” and then there’s whatever you want to call this.
Butler, 25, was the breakout player of the 2014–15 campaign, a hungry and tireless defensive stopper who emerged overnight as a 20-point scorer due to necessity and injuries around him. The 6’7” Butler has always been an imposing defender, but 2014–15 was the first time he truly discovered how to put his strength to full use as an offensive threat. His scoring improvements came from a variety of sources: he had his best year shooting from outside, he bullied his way to the line with aggressive drives like never before, he hit the offensive boards hard for a wing player, and he exuded a “Jimmy Buckets” confidence from opening night that hadn’t existed during his first three seasons.
By the time spring rolled around, Butler’s magic carpet ride did hit a few bumps. Due to his new-found offensive responsibilities and the strain of playing a league-leading 38.7 minutes per game, Butler’s night-to-night defensive intensity slipped a bit, although though he remains one of the league’s savviest and most energetic perimeter defenders. Then, he suffered an elbow injury that cost him three weeks in March. Upon his return, he and Rose never quite found a perfect offensive balance, and the Bulls’ attack came undone late in their second-round loss to the Cavaliers.
Butler’s major jump in the Top 100 rankings is unusual, but hardly an over-correction. His career year yielded his first All-Star selection, his second All-Defensive selection, the 2015 Most Improved Player award, and a five-year, $95 million contract in free agency. He performed at an elite level last season no matter how you slice it, ranking No. 6 league-wide in Win Shares, No. 16 in WARP, and in the top 25 in PER and Real Plus-Minus. With his new contract in hand and a new coach in town, it will be incumbent upon Butler to maintain his edge and do it all over again. – B.G.
2014-15: 20.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 46.2 FG%, 37.8 3P%
Advanced: 21.3 PER, Win Shares: 11.2, +4.30 RPM
17Kevin LoveCavs | Forward | Last year: 7
It seems necessary to first point out that these rankings strip a player of current team context. We’re evaluating not what Kevin Love was to the Cavaliers last season or even what he could be to Cleveland this year. What matters is the player that Love is in ability and concept—how much he would be able to contribute to an assortment of teams in a variety of circumstances. That player is impressive, even if Love’s most recent campaign was not.
Love was an afterthought player within the way Cleveland chose to operate. Even so, the Cavaliers’ offense was five points better with him on the floor in the regular season, per NBA.com, based on the value that his presence alone provided. This is Love’s baseline; even if a team chooses to reduce him to an accessory, Love has the gravity, shooting range, and passing ability to create meaning in the margins. Bigs who can open up the field of play with only passive participation in the offense are in scarce supply. Even more exceptional are those who could play a smaller role if needed but would swell to stardom when asked.
This is what separates Love from the NBA’s ranks of stretch bigs. Other players are confined to that role by ability; a perimeter shooting specialty and lack of interior skills sets them up to space the floor. Love is a three-point specialist only when his team chooses, as his more natural role to this point has been that of a shot-creating star. How quickly we forget that the 2013–14 Timberwolves—of which Love was the only star—finished 10th in margin of victory, ahead of playoff teams in Dallas, Chicago, Memphis, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Brooklyn. The difference is not merely a function of shot attempts. Minnesota’s offense was geared toward getting Love momentum before the catch and allowing him to run offense on the move. Receiving the ball while curling to the elbow is an entirely different process from catching at a standstill in the corner. Under those more dynamic circumstances, Love more than satisfied his end of the bargain by lifting a mediocre supporting cast to a top-10 finish in offensive efficiency.
Love can have that kind of effect, if you let him, while grabbing even more rebounds than he did for the Cavaliers last season (For the record: Love still finished as a top-10 defensive rebounder and top-20 rebounder overall by percentage, even in his odd transition year). What apparently won’t change is Love’s defense. His effort and feel for coverage both leave something to be desired. Even on those plays where Love is working and engaged, he’s liable to miss his rotation by a full beat or box out early rather than see a defensive possession through. It’s a problem—especially now that we’ve seen Love struggle on that end for playoff and lottery teams alike.
That tradeoff is the kind of thing a team can stomach when Love is integral and producing at an All-NBA level. It’s less acceptable when his role is supplementary (and his impact thereby depressed), though even last season’s version of Love was unquestionably a value-adding player in the final balance. This was, more or less, the worst of Love: an understated performance on a team that took him for granted. His best, as we’ve seen in his greater body of work, more closely approximates Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge as a challenger to the top 10. – R.M.
2014-15: 16.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 43.4 FG%, 36.7 3P%
Advanced: 18.8 PER, Win Shares: 8.7, +2.71 RPM
16Draymond GreenWarriors | Forward | Last year: —
Not only does Draymond Green come into our rankings with a championship glow, but also the validation of a player who handled a variety of coverages and responsibilities en route to a title. Green is a problem solver. Any attempt to scheme him out of the action will result in Green wiggling through, however gradually, to solution. Any needed adjustment to his defensive approach will be made in time. Whatever openings exist on offense will be felt out and exploited. Such is the only course for a player cerebral in his approach and unyielding in his effort—the awesome mix that makes Green one of the most effective players in the league at just 25 years old.
This very contention might seem insane to some. The one thing that Green doesn’t do well (score in volume) just so happens to be the one quality that has historically distinguished the NBA’s stars. Just last season, 120 NBA players scored more points per game than Green did. We’re here to tell you that it hardly matters. Some players get buckets. Green does damn near everything else, from setting physical screens to routing the offense with expert passing to playing elite defense across all positional lines. At the point that Green makes a profound difference for the Warriors and could do the same for any other team in the league, what does it matter that he shaves an opponent’s point total or bolsters a teammate’s rather than pad his own?
Green’s case is made in both the broad and the specific. In big-picture terms, he is one of the NBA’s very best defenders—a worthy (and perhaps disserviced) runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year race and the captain of the league’s best defensive team. Those qualifications alone rocket him in our rankings. What Green offers a defense is more substantial and extraordinary than what many of the league’s leading scorers offer to their respective offenses. The nature of his defensive responsibilities, which far exceed his individual matchup, call him into action on sequence after sequence, helping and switching to fill even the slightest gap in coverage. No one in the NBA floats so smoothly from bodying bigs to restricting guards to boxing out whoever he must. That across-the-board suitability allows Green to streamline all forms of defensive exchange. Every offense in the league looks to force defenders to cover ground and make decisions. Green moves laterally as well as any big in the league and then eases the decision-making process by assuming whatever responsibility is necessary. It’s damn difficult, frankly, to even put Green in a bad spot.
The same kind of adaptability empowers Green on the other side of the ball. Strictly speaking, Green is a spot-up big; he flanks many plays by screening and setting up on the perimeter while Golden State’s guards put the ball into action. Most possessions that come to Green, however, are only beginning. The catch-and-shoot option is always on the table. But Green, never satisfied with merely a good look, more often puts the ball on the floor to prod the defense and see which teammates shake free. His poise alone is notable. Bigs forced to dribble into the next layer of defense will sometimes teeter from the self-fulfilling fear of losing control. Green always seems to have his wits about him and, for a player who winds up handling the ball and threading passes as often as he does, posts impressively modest turnover numbers.
It’s one thing for a big to pass from a standstill and quite another for them to shed a defender, floor the ball, and seek out opportunities to make plays. This is where Green thrives, and with him the Warriors offense. Green isn’t an especially dominant finisher or even all that consistent an outside shooter. What he brings is heady decision-making, activated by his handle, that is utterly specific to the moment in time. The only script exists between Green’s ears. – R.M.
2014-15: 11.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 3.7 APG, 44.3 FG%, 33.7 3P%
Advanced: 16.4 PER, Win Shares: 8.5, +6.8 RPM
15Carmelo AnthonyKnicks | Forward | Last year: 11
Although rushing to write off Carmelo Anthony would be a mistake, the sand does seem to be shifting beneath his feet. As the 10-time All-Star works back from a season-ending knee injury and attempts to suppress all memories of New York’s tank-tastic 2014–15 campaign, he does so with a fleet of young, talented, two-way wings gunning for his spot behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant on the charts.
Anthony is undoubtedly a player’s player: he is an elite isolation scorer and shot-creator; he can beat defenses inside, outside and from midrange; he commands extra attention and can consistently score against double teams; and he makes it all look effortless. Along with Durant and James Harden, he’s near the very top of the list of candidates if you need a basket in a one-on-one, late-clock situation. If surrounded with reasonable talent, as he was in 2012–13, Anthony can be the No. 1 guy on a top-five offense. If dumped into a trash heap, as he was last season, Anthony will have to settle for getting his 25, no matter what the opposing defense throws at him, and keep it moving. His scoring consistency, regardless of where he played and with whom, shouldn’t be overlooked: Anthony has averaged at least 20 points per game every season during his 12-year career, trailing only Kobe Bryant (15) and Dirk Nowitzki (13) among active players with 20-plus point seasons.
At the risk of beating a well-worn drum, Anthony, now 31, still faces legitimate questions about what else he brings to the table. He might be a reasonable threat from outside, thereby stretching defenses and opening up opportunities for his teammates in the process, but he’s no Durant or Stephen Curry. He might be a more willing passer than his assist numbers indicate, but he’s still not a game-changing playmaker for others. He might be right there with James and Durant when it comes to impacting games on the offensive end, but he’s a minus defender who requires real massaging to mask. He might be able to make a full-time transition to power forward, where he would of course be one of the best stretch fours in the league, but he’d still need to handle the defensive responsibilities and pounding that would come with the switch. He might have led the Nuggets to the 2009 Western Conference finals at age 24, but he’s won just one postseason series since and will need some real breaks to avoid the lottery for the second straight year in 2015–16. He might be a scoring machine, but he’s in the shop an awful lot, missing at least 10 games in three of the last four seasons.
From a total value standpoint, it’s very difficult to argue that Anthony still trumps Kawhi Leonard, whose defense is on par with Anthony’s offense and whose growing offensive game far surpasses Anthony’s defense. Indeed, SI’s “Top 100” prefers Leonard for this very reason, and a similar argument can be made for a fully-healthy George. For now, it’s best not to blame all of the Knicks’ dysfunction on Anthony, and to give him an opportunity to reassert himself once he’s healthy. If the Knicks remain stuck in quicksand, despite Anthony’s best efforts, his slide on these rankings could continue. One-way, high-volume scorers on losing teams typically don’t fare very well here, nor should they. – BG 2014-15: 24.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.1 APG, 44.4 FG%
Advanced: 21.5 PER, Win Shares: 2.9, +2.82 RPM
14DeMarcus CousinsKings | Center | Last year: 27
There isn’t really a polite way to put this: DeMarcus Cousins is the highest-ranked player on this year’s Top 100 who hasn’t won anything in the NBA. All 13 players ranked above Cousins, who's perpetually dysfunctional Kings are 131–263 (.332) since drafting him in 2010, have made the playoffs, 12 have won a series, eight have made the conference finals, and four have won a title. Besides Tim Duncan, who turns 40 next April, none of the 13 players are older than 30 and none are in decline. The 25-year-old Cousins has watched, often with a grimace, as his peers have moved on to bigger and better things, while he’s still hoping to play for a 30-win team and trying to remember who is coaching him this week.
The good news is that he’s now indisputably among the league’s upper-echelon stars, posting an astounding 24/12/3/1/1 stat line that has only been matched by Kevin Garnett over the last 19 NBA seasons. The bad news, of course, is he’s been stuck in the muck in Sacramento with no end in sight. The general tendency for the national audience is to focus on the “bad news” part of Cousins’s situation, and Vivek Ranadive, Vlade Divac and George Karl have been more than accommodating when it comes to providing new angles. But Cousins’s ongoing development, even if it hasn’t yet translated to team success, is a real story too.
Last season, Cousins earned his first All-Star and All-NBA selections, breaking past the velvet ropes that had previously excluded him on the basis of his team’s shortcomings and his fiery, sometimes immature personality. This was a matter of Cousins kicking in the door and waving the four-four: he ranked No. 5 in scoring, No. 3 in rebounding, No. 7 in PER, No. 9 in Real Plus-Minus, and No. 12 in WARP, an output portfolio that is impossible to ignore. Even his most ardent critics had to admit that he posted the most impressive numbers of any big man besides Anthony Davis, with the obvious caveat that Cousins did miss 23 games due to viral meningitis and a variety of minor maladies down the stretch. When it comes to bruising, low-post scorers, Cousins is the league’s best.
It’s evident, by now, that Cousins is an absolute load offensively, the rare center who can overpower his defender at the rim, hit a soft jumper from the elbow, blow by a close-out defender off the bounce, and initiate a fast break with his own dribbling. His size and strength cause serious problems, so much so that he averaged 9.2 free throws per game last season, more than anyone besides James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Importantly, Cousins, a 78% free-throw shooter, gets hacked because there’s no alternative, not because it’s part of some intentional fouling strategy.
Cousins also seemed to make individual progress defensively, even if Sacramento’s defense overall regressed from No. 23 in 2013–14 to No. 27 in 2014–15, a fall that was surely influenced by multiple midseason coaching changes. The Kings’ defensive rating was 6.6 points better with Cousins on the court last season, and he improved his Defensive Real Plus-Minus from +1.86 in 2013–14 to +4.71 last season, a figure that was second among centers, trailing only Andrew Bogut. The same athletic tools that make him a tough cover allow Cousins to be a versatile defender: he has the requisite size and strength to patrol the basket area and clear the defensive glass, he has the quickness and special awareness to track out to the perimeter without getting antsy, and he has the footwork to stay with players of all sizes as they attack out of pick-and-rolls or turn the corner into the paint. While his foul trouble, turnover problems and temper issues haven’t totally dissipated, Cousins is more reliable than he was two or three years ago.
Now that Cousins has arrived, he faces a key question: Has his reputation hit a ceiling? Can he realistically climb any higher on the Top 100 ladder without pulling the Kings toward happier days? How insane must his already insane stats get to overcome a sixth straight losing season or a sixth straight lottery trip? In a best-case scenario, Cousins helps Sacramento turn the corner a la Davis in New Orleans last season, and the ceiling disappears. In a worst-case scenario, in which the status quo continues, some of the anger and outrage that Cousins has provoked during his career just might start transforming to pity. – B.G.
2014-15: 25.4 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 46.7 FG%
Advanced: 25.2 PER, Win Shares: 6.0, +6.12 RPM
13John WallWizards | Guard | Last year: 31
Let us eat crow. We were wrong about John Wall, who came in at No. 31 on last year’s list and promptly laid waste to our modest expectations. Wall matured quickly as a steward of the Wizards offense. Defensively, he evolved from a guard with great size and timing into a stout team defender capable of championing a system from within. Seasoning has brought restraint and that restraint a ticket to high-level stardom. Consider this a course correction.
Wall, who ranked second in the league in assists per game last season, might actually be underserved by traditional assist stats. His passes are creating the right kinds of shots; no player in the league created more layups and dunks for his teammates (4.2 per game) via assists last season than Wall, according to NBA Miner, and only four players created more made three-pointers despite the Wizards ranking near the bottom of the league in total three-point attempts. The only player to register more secondary assists (passes leading to an assist) than Wall last season was Chris Paul, per SportVU, and the only player to generate more free-throw assists (passes leading to free throws, a form of assist not included in the traditional made-basket formula) was Ricky Rubio. Wall’s teammates are leaving plenty of potential assists on the table, too, given his high ranking in assist opportunities on a team that played at a below-average pace.
From the perspective of pure playmaking, there may be none better. Plenty of Wall’s assists are relatively standard passes landed accurately with some zip behind them. To complement them, Wall defers to his creative muse—that voice in the back of his head that speaks to creativity in open defiance of fundamentals. The one-handed, cross-court pass that shouldn’t have a chance to hit its mark? Wall nails it. Those beautiful bounce passes in traffic that other guards wouldn’t dare to throw? Wall relishes the opportunity. Behind-the-back slices in close quarters, three-moves-ahead alley-oops, and precisions passes down the baseline with almost no margin for error? Wall pulls them all off as if they were the most normal thing in the world.
This is a special player—a virtuoso not yet at the height of his craft. And he has to be, frankly, to rank this high while scoring so inefficiently. Wall is done no favors by the basic construct of Washington’s offense. Even still, his shooting percentages read with a thud; of the 35 players to average 17 points per game or more last season, only five posted a lower true shooting percentage than Wall. He suffers from a troubling trinity: ho-hum finishing efficiency, inconsistent midrange shooting, and dreary three-point marksmanship. Nowhere in Wall’s scoring game is there some compensatory strength. One might think that a player this quick would be able to better access his best spots on the court, though in Wall’s case that explosiveness hasn’t yet helped him to clean up his shot chart.
It may come in due time. Wall is touch and go on his pull-up jumper and floater, though either could be a hell of a change-up if they start falling enough to stick. Even one or two more reliable tools would give Wall something to riff off of—a plausible threat that opponents would need to respect and thus leave other scoring avenues unattended. As it stands, his freeform scoring attempts ebb and flow in their returns, generally falling to the less favorable end for the spectrum.
Wall has the complete game to make up for it. In addition the raw passing ability and increasing sophistication with which he runs an offense, Wall now qualifies as an adept and purposeful defender. Opposing guards have a hell of a time sneaking anything past him. Wall casts his long arms into passing lanes and otherwise uses his length to remain a constant threat for steals and deflections. Every year, if not every month, sees Wall better grasp how to put that length to his advantage and maintain effective positioning. Some of that technique (the way he navigates around screens, his upright stance, etc.) is a work in progress. Wall has simply evolved to the point where he can grow forward while helping, guarding, and pressuring at a high level. – R.M.
2014-15: 17.6 PPG, 10.0 APG, 4.6 RPG, 44.5 FG%, 30 3P%
Advanced: 19.9 PER, Win Shares: 7.8, +4.30 RPM
12LaMarcus AldridgeSpurs | Forward | Last year: 12
In back-to-back seasons, Aldridge was the definitive axis of one of the NBA’s better offenses. Portland leaned heavily on Aldridge’s post game as a means of creation. Individual coverage with committed perimeter defense would be met with a turnaround jumper—the staple of his repertoire. Any additional pressure or laziness on the part of off-ball defenders would feed into the Blazers’ flow. Aldridge would first give up the ball in the cleanest way possible and following a chain reaction of swing passes, Portland would either seize an opportunity or reset through Aldridge. That basic rhythm carried the Blazers to something resembling title contention; although reasonable people can disagree as to how much of a threat they posed, the healthy 2014–15 Blazers had all the statistical markings of a should-be contender.
The style they played relied on Aldridge’s ability to take and make certain kinds of difficult shots at the expense of his shooting efficiency. Aldridge’s 8.7 post-up possessions per game was the second-highest mark of its kind, according to Synergy Sports. Those possessions are inherently less fruitful than others spent rolling to the rim or working the offensive glass. No matter how skilled a post player might be, high usage in that space will result in markedly lower shot-for-shot efficiency. Aldridge took that fact in stride and thrived all the same behind one of the NBA’s highest usage rates. If Portland needed him to structure possessions through the threat of his scoring, so be it.
All of which speaks to the fact that Aldridge can both carry a smart, balanced offense like the Blazers or change his role to allow for a different kind of shot profile. Teams could play him inside or out, as a central hub or one creator among several. Just don’t ask him to play center.
It’s perfectly understandable that Aldridge, no matter his size and strength, would rather not tussle with centers on a full-time basis. His rebounding is only so-so and playing bigger means backing down stronger post defenders on a nightly basis. Should Aldridge ever change his mind, however, he’d make a damn near ideal center in the modern NBA. The spacing speaks for itself. When a team’s least rangy position is occupied by one of the deadliest midrange shooters in the game, it affords the offense a wide variety of productive courses. Defensively, Aldridge is 1) better than he’s often given credit, provided that he’s dialed in, and 2) tall enough to handle more conventional matchups. Aldridge won’t provide an especially rigid line of rim protection, though he picks up early and moves his feet rather well.
Last we saw Aldridge, he had already checked out of a Blazers playoff series still in progress. It doesn’t even seem fair to demerit him much for that; for the star of an injured team to feel defeated in the midst of an extended tailspin seems rather reasonable, if unfortunate. Aldridge’s greater body of work speaks to a more committed player—one willing and able to steady a quality team over the long haul. – R.M.
2014-15: 23.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 1.0 BPG, 46.6 FG%, 35.2 3P%
Advanced: 22.8 PER, Win Shares: 8.6, +4.06 RPM
11Tim DuncanSpurs | Forward | Last year: 5
The new Netflix series “Narcos” repeatedly recites an old line, the one about how only the cockroaches will survive a nuclear holocaust. I watched as the show’s camera tracked these perseverant little bugs across a post-apocalyptic desert, and I kept expecting an unfazed Tim Duncan to be banking in jumpers and posting a 20-plus PER somewhere in the dusty background.
Remarkably, Duncan remained in the conversation as the NBA’s best all-around big man in 2014–15, his age-38 season. The future Hall of Famer saw his per-game production slip to 14/9, near the low-water mark of his career, but he plunged through another excellent campaign that saw him earn All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive honors. San Antonio won 55 games and made the playoffs for the 18th time in Duncan’s 18-year career that the Spurs posted a winning percentage of .610 or greater and the 18th time they’ve advanced to the postseason. Duncan posted a 22.6 PER, the 18th time in his 18-year career he posted a PER above 20. Duncan averaged 17/11 per-36 minutes, the 18th time in his 18-year career that he’s done that (rounding up). You get the picture.
And yet it gets better. Duncan ranked in the top 15 league-wide in PER, Win Shares, Real Plus-Minus, and WARP; the only other players to fit that bill were LeBron James, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry and James Harden, the NBA’s top six MVP candidates, who all happen to be 30 or younger. From a PER standpoint, Duncan posted the second-best age-38 season in NBA history, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1986. From a Win Shares standpoint, Duncan’s season was fourth all-time at his age, trailing only Abdul-Jabbar, John Stockton (2001) and Karl Malone (2002). Take a moment to truly digest that: Duncan was simultaneously in the mix with today’s greats, regardless of age, and history’s all-time greats at his age.
Try as he might to cede some of center stage to his younger teammates, Duncan proved to be San Antonio’s most formidable figure again in the playoffs. Tony Parker didn’t look healthy. Manu Ginobili was just too shaky. Danny Green was streaky. Kawhi Leonard never fully took over in the series-deciding sequences. And yet there was Duncan, nuclear winter survivor, posting 28/11 in Game 2 to even the series and 21/11 in Game 5 to give the Spurs a 3–2 series lead. There was Duncan, stymying Griffin in signature fashion.
It should have been enough to break the Clippers, but it wasn’t. Barely. Chris Paul claimed the series with a remarkable last-second shot in Game 7. The last time the Spurs were beaten by a devastating shot, Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, Duncan rallied the troops to make a resounding run to the 2014 title. A similar bounceback season is a possibility in 2016, thanks to a strong summer that included the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge (a longtime Duncan admirer) and David West as well as the re-signings of Leonard, Green and Ginobili. Duncan’s decision to continue his career and sign a comically cheap two-year, $10.4 million contract ensured the band got back together, and his ability to continue playing to his standard of excellence is a prerequisite for San Antonio’s title hopes.
Duncan slips out of SI’s Top 10 for the first time since this list began in 2013. This wasn’t an easy call, given Duncan’s stabilizing effect throughout a regular season marred by injuries to his teammates and his strong (albeit brief) showing in the playoffs. Ultimately, his upcoming 40th birthday and the shifts brought on by Leonard’s ascension and Aldridge’s arrival provided enough cause to drop him six spots, as coach Gregg Popovich should be in position to manage Duncan’s season even more carefully. With any luck, these circumstances will lead to a Clippers/Spurs postseason rematch, or a Rockets/Spurs battle for Texas supremacy, or the highly-anticipated Warriors/Spurs showdown that didn’t materialize last season. Or, if we’re allowed to dream, maybe there’s still time for one more Finals showdown between Duncan and James. Just one more for the ages. – BG
2014-15: 13.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 51.2 FG%
Advanced: 22.6 PER, Win Shares: 9.6, +5.20 RPM
10Kawhi LeonardSpurs | Forward | Last year: 28
The inclusion of Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard in the top 10 might strike some as overly generous, especially because it comes at the expense of more established names, including two of his teammates. After all, Leonard is the only member of the top 15 without an All-Star selection to his name, he’s the only member of the top 12 without an All-NBA selection, he’s the only member of the top 15 that has never played at least 67 games in a season. His 16.5 points per game scoring average ranked just 35th league-wide last season, barely topping a role player like J.J. Redick.
READ MOREYes, there is some projecting happening here. That should be the least surprising admission of all time. Leonard has a Finals MVP award, a championship, a Defensive Player of the Year award and a five-year, $90 million maximum contract to his name at the ripe old age of 24. He’s steadily improved his scoring, rebounding and assist numbers in each of his four seasons. Last year, he averaged just 31.8 minutes a game; at the same age, LeBron James was logging 40.4 minutes, while Kevin Durant was playing 38.6. Betting on Leonard’s future improvement requires zero risk and concluding that he’s more valuable than his per-game stats requires minimal brainpower.
By now, the world should be fully aware of his virtues on defense: he is versatile, long, strong and quick, plus he has excellent feet, hands, instincts and focus. Last season, San Antonio’s defensive rating improved from 102.2 when he was off the court to 97.1 when he was on it, and his +4.59 Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranked third overall in the NBA. Leonard has already passed high-pressure tests with flying colors—winning series against both James and Durant in the playoffs—and he’s helped the Spurs to top-five defensive efficiency rankings for three consecutive seasons. Leonard is probably the most coveted under-25 player not named Anthony Davis.
The offensive growth he displayed down the stretch last year is most intriguing of all. As noted back in April, Leonard doesn’t have his own signature skill so much as he excels at making star-type plays in a variety of different ways. He can grab a defensive rebound and take off for down the court, he can finish plays above the rim in transition, he can knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers, he can pound defenders in the post, he can hit a face-up jumper in isolation, and he’s proficient in simple pick-and-roll plays. While it’s accurate to say that Leonard’s offensive game is still a work in progress, it’s more accurate to say that he’s showing clear progress in numerous areas of his offensive game, and there’s more to come. His impact numbers are strong on the offensive end, too, by the way: San Antonio’s offensive efficiency improved by 5.9 points with him on the court.
Deciding the order in which to rank Leonard, Duncan and Aldridge was not easy, and in the end the youngest of the three Spurs frontcourt stars won out because he seems to have the surest short-term future. Unlike Duncan, he isn’t facing age-related decline or the possibility of limited minutes. Unlike Aldridge, he isn’t transitioning to a new franchise or adjusting to a new role. Regardless of how the shot-taking pecking order shakes out, Leonard will be bringing A-list defense and making contributions all over the court. Plus, he has the full support of San Antonio’s old guard: Tony Parker, for example, said that Leonard was transitioning into becoming “The Man,” while Duncan symbolically presented Leonard with his Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
The torch wasn’t officially, indisputably passed in 2014-15, as Leonard faded during the Spurs’ first-round loss to the Clippers. As L.A. stormed back in the series to take Games 6 and 7, Leonard’s shot abandoned him, his assertiveness seemed to wane, and he wasn’t able to exert the alpha scorer influence that coach Gregg Popovich seemed to be requesting in must-score situations. While the media-averse Leonard is hardly the type to issue grand pronouncements about how he plans to draw motivation from those experiences, his track record suggests that he’s unlikely to make the same mistake twice. Leonard is coming back better, and potentially a lot better, in 2016. You’ve been warned. – B.G.
2014-15: 18.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.6 SPG, 47.9 FG%, 34.9 3P%
Advanced: 22.0 PER, Win Shares: 8.6, +7.57 RPM
9Marc GasolGrizzlies | Center | Last year: 16
By nature, Marc Gasol tends to defer—not to any specific teammate, per se, but to the pursuit of the best shot possible. He passes up semi-open looks. He prefers not to back down an opponent on possession after possession. Every bit of Gasol’s internal programming calls for him to play unselfishly and yet all of those around Gasol—his coaches, teammates, and even his adoring fans—beg the seven-footer to take more for himself. Much of Gasol’s development as a player has come in working against that particular grain. The skills to score at will have long been there. The willingness to do so is a more recent evolution.
Gasol will never play with the complete abandon of say, Marreese Speights, whose shooting hand twitches until the moment it touches leather. Yet the past two seasons have seen Gasol take meaningful steps in his approach to scoring and concurrent steps up in his usage rate. Both could stand to go higher, still, though at the least Gasol now posts the highest usage on his team and a near identical mark to some other quality post-up bigs (Pau Gasol, Enes Kanter, Dirk Nowitzki). Even that bit of self-indulgence helped to level out the Grizzlies’ offense last season, yielding 105.3 points per 100 possessions—the equivalent of a top-10 offense—whenever Gasol was on the floor.
That number is a byproduct, too, of Gasol’s work from the elbow. Those tempted to park Gasol on the low block likely haven’t seen the mastery with which he executes dribble hand-offs or the full extent of his high-post playmaking. It’s skills like those that distinguish Gasol from some of his more antiquated peers. Useful as posting up may be, dominating in that space is unquestionably more difficult under modern NBA rules and styles. Even teams with great post players have moved away from pound-it-in offenses for the sake of more fluid, dynamic systems. Gasol’s skill set bridges that divide. He’s an expert passer, a strong mid-range shooter, and a quality roll man in addition to boasting the league’s widest array of post moves. Such breadth of ability translates in a way that keeps his team tactically agile. Never would Memphis be locked into playing any one way on Gasol’s account. How many of the league’s other seven-footers can say the same?
Of course, so much attention is paid to Gasol’s offense in part because his defense is a finished product. His size alone can be suffocating; Gasol snuffs out all kinds of plays just by getting in the way and staying there, constantly adjusting his positioning and angle along the way to keep his presence relevant. Many ball handlers – particularly those who draw Gasol on a switch – are flummoxed by this. The way Gasol moves through the lane and out to the perimeter when needed conveys a subtle but distinct athleticism. There’s no explosion there. Every movement instead hinges on nimble feet and impressive coordination, a tandem which puts a big body in between the ball and its intended destination.
The beats of defending the pick-and-roll are also second nature to Gasol at this point, as are the angles of guarding the post. He’s physically imposing and well rehearsed; Gasol has worked at the center of Memphis’ highly ranked defense for years and seen offensive strategies of every kind. None are especially effective given that Gasol cannot be budged from his natural, stifling rhythms. Defenses are built on the concept of the help being where it should be when it has to be. Gasol is the standing embodiment of that charge’s fulfillment. – R.M.
2014-15: 17.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 49.4 FG%
Advanced: 21.7 PER, Win Shares: 10.2, +3.61 RPM
8Blake GriffinClippers | Forward | Last year: 10
Although he’s rarely credited as such, Griffin is one of the NBA’s most creative players. In almost every game he seems to attempt a move that no other player would: some layup or dunk at a crazy angle, a whirling post move that proves impossible to defend, or a transition series that blends finely tuned ball skills with off-kilter timing. The essence of his game is imagination.
It’s for that reason that Griffin has always been more than a mere dunker, even in the days before he was shooting midrange jumpers at a 40% clip. Many of the NBA’s best players rely on moves they’ve practiced a thousand times. Griffin has his own, too, though to supplement he uses footwork, launch point, and the timing of his release as tools for spontaneous invention. Results vary. What doesn’t is the value of a process so organic and of a particular moment as to be completely unpredictable—perhaps the greatest advantage in a league of familiar opponents who have been scouted exhaustively.
As Griffin demonstrated in the playoffs, he can effectively moonlight as a point guard for teams short on other options. Reads on the fly are no problem; not only can Griffin make quick decisions with the ball after making a catch on the move, but he navigates pick-and-roll situations fluently to completion as the ballhandler. It takes a very particular set of skills for a big to be likened to LeBron James. Yet Griffin, who averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game in the playoffs, wears the comparison comfortably.
When at optimal balance, Griffin is given room to access all dimensions of his game without the kind of overstretch he experienced in the Clippers’ playoff elimination. He’s at his best when collaborating. Give Griffin an effective playmaker and he’ll return some of the most devastating cuts and rolls in the league. Position him alongside a finisher (like DeAndre Jordan) and Blake will mind the court’s spacing while assisting on high-percentage shots after drawing the defense’s attention. Fit a lineup with perimeter shooters and Griffin will go to work from the post, where he’s far more effective than many realize. The common thread is the act of creation; if given even decent supporting talent, Griffin will make the most of his role and make his team credible in the process. – R.M.
2014-15: 21.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 5.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 50.2 FG%
Advanced: 22.8 PER, Win Shares: 9.0, +3.35 RPM
7Russell WestbrookThunder | Guard | Last year: 4
A fitting epitaph for Russell Westbrook’s 2014–15 season would be a famous quote from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden: “Never mistake activity for achievement.” No NBA player, none, does activity like Westbrook, a 6’3” over-caffeinated electron who can’t be bothered to stop even when he breaks a bone in his face. Oklahoma City’s All-Star point guard compensated for Kevin Durant’s extended absences by trying to do every damn thing, and he walked away with his first scoring title, his fourth All-Star selection, his first All-Star Game MVP award, his fourth straight All-NBA selection, a fourth-place finish in MVP voting, a league-leading 11 triple doubles, and top-eight rankings in PER, Win Shares, Real Plus-Minus, and WARP.
If they count it, Westbrook did it, even though he missed 15 games due to multiple broken bones that required surgery. He ranked in the top 10 league-wide in points, field goals, free throws, assists, steals, turnovers, technical fouls, usage, and probably about 73 other statistical categories. His final stat line—28.1/7.3/8.6/2.1—has only been matched by one player in NBA history: 1989 Michael Jordan. Westbrook also became the first player other than LeBron James to average 26/6/6 since Jordan in 1992.
As various teammates, in addition to Durant, went down with injuries, Westbrook responded by going faster and faster, an honorable but also exhausting approach. In the thick of a tight race for the West’s last playoff spot, The Westbrook Show went 1–6 during a critical two-week stretch, trying and failing to lure quality teams into carefree, defense-optional shootouts. The season’s quintessential night came in Oklahoma City’s final loss of the season, a 116–104 defeat to Indiana that ultimately allowed New Orleans to claim the West’s eighth seed. That night, Westbrook scored a career-high 54 points (on 43 shots), all of his teammates combined to score just 50 points, and the Pacers’ point total represented their second-highest mark of the season. So much activity squandered without the prized achievement to show for it.
Westbrook, a veteran of multiple conference finals and the 2012 Finals, appeared to understand the activity/achievement gap better than anyone. Asked on the final night of the year what his scoring title meant, he immediately replied “s---,” because the Thunder were headed to the lottery since 2008–09, Westbrook’s rookie year.
That self-assessment is certainly too harsh. The Thunder were 40–27 with Westbrook in the lineup, a 49-win pace that would have qualified for the playoffs if he had enjoyed better health. But there is still a sense that his unmatched motion outpaces the sum total of his contributions. In particular, his over-aggressiveness on defense can come back to bite the Thunder, as it occasionally bordered on recklessness. Offensively, his sixth-gear approach does far more good than harm, but his immense self-belief can cause problems when it leads him to launch unnecessarily ambitious three-point attempts or wild, low-percentage layups as he blasts through heavy traffic.
The takeaways from watching this full-force, no checks-and-balances version of Westbrook were two-fold. First, that he is definitely capable of being The Man on a winning team if the supporting pieces were healthy and assembled to support his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. Second, that the Durant/Westbrook tandem balanced each other even more effectively than most people realized. Their reunion under new coach Billy Donovan is a very strong candidate to be the league’s most intriguing storyline when training camps open this fall. Together, and healthy, there is no cap on what they can achieve. – B.G.
2014-15: 28.1 PPG, 8.6 APG, 7.3 RPG, 42.6 FG%, 29.9 3P%
Advanced: 29.1 PER, Win Shares: 10.6, +7.08 RPM
6Chris PaulClippers | Guard | Last year:
What a weird, weird season for Chris Paul, who seemingly buried the career-long criticisms of his big-moment shortcomings by hitting an iconic series-winning shot to beat the Spurs, only to watch helplessly as those same doubts were exhumed just days later thanks to an historic choke job against the Rockets. The Clippers’ perennial All-Star point guard will likely play those two fateful weeks on mental repeat for decades to come. One moment, he was on the fast track to the first conference finals trip of his career. The next, he was riding a banana boat during another long offseason, trying to forget the pain.
Although Paul ranked third overall in the last two renditions of SI’s Top 100, his fall this year had less to do with L.A.’s playoff collapse and much more to do with the ascendency of Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry, two All-NBA talents who are on the rise. Again, to be clear, Paul’s game isn’t yet slipping compared to his own standard. In fact, he played in all 82 games for the first time in his career, he ranked in the top seven by PER, Win Shares, Real Plus-Minus and WARP, he led the league in assists for the fourth time in his career, he earned All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive honors, and he captained the NBA’s No. 1 offense. That’s one hell of a season, even if it ended in confounding fashion.
Maybe the most remarkable Paul statistic from last season concerns his offensive impact. With Paul on the court, the Clippers posted a whopping 115.1 offensive rating, which was more than five points higher than the overall league-leading offensive rating. When he was off the court, the Clippers’ offensive rating dropped a whopping 19.5 points (!) to 95.6, which would have ranked as the NBA’s second-worst offense last season, besting only the tanking Sixers. With Paul, the Clippers’ attack was world-beating. Without Paul, the Clippers had less punch than the 17-win Knicks. That’s taking indispensability to a whole new level.
An intense game of rock/paper/scissors broke out when it came time to rank Paul, James Harden and Russell Westbrook in spots five, six and seven. The case for Paul, 30, boiled down to his elite play on both ends, his general steadiness and superb decision-making, his lengthy and consistent statistical track record, his ability to make his teammates better, and his status as the most important player on a team that has won 56 or more games for three straight seasons. That case was enough to inch him past Westbrook, whose volatility was just off-putting enough, but not quite enough to beat out Harden. The final tie-breaker was health and age-related. The tie-breaking feeling was that Harden, 26 and with no major injury issues to date, had a better chance of replicating or surpassing his 2014–15 season than Paul, who has missed 10+ games three times in the last six years and suffered an untimely hamstring injury during the 2015 playoffs.
The famously-competitive Paul has never lacked for motivation, but the last six months have supplied plenty of new ammunition. Stephen Curry zoomed past him to take over the No. 1 spot among point guards. The Warriors left the Clippers in the dust in the Pacific Division and in the playoffs. The Clippers exited the postseason in shock and embarrassment rather than triumph. DeAndre Jordan nearly left town in free agency, amidst questions about the health of his working relationship with Paul. The Clippers stocked up during the offseason, giving Paul perhaps the deepest cast of supporting talent he’s ever enjoyed. There’s never a bad time to win big, but 2016 is shaping up to be a sweet time for Paul to finally break through. – B.G.
2014-15: 19.1 PPG, 10.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, 48.5 FG%, 39.8 3P%
Advanced: 26.0 PER, Win Shares: 16.1, +6.92 RPM
5James HardenRockets | Guard | Last year:13
To guard James Harden is to risk looking foolish. It begins, always, with the hypnotic rhythm of Harden’s dribble. Harden keeps upright as he crosses halfcourt, dribbling high and slow as to beckon his defender closer. As he nears the three-point line, he lurches. His body compacts. His dribble sinks closer to the floor and breaks into sets of staccato—crossing over and back and over and back until an opponent leans ever so slightly on his heels. At that point, Harden has already won.
READ MOREThe world knows that Harden wants to go left and yet defenders everywhere are powerless to stop him. Credit the trance of his handle; Harden’s ball control is so tight and his first step so brutal that he sells defenders on a possibility he never intends to pursue. So left he goes, either past his defender in a single stride or into their body if no clear angle presents itself. The contact is real but manufactured. Driving into an opponent immediately puts the defender at a positional disadvantage, as if left at the mercy of Harden and the officials.
At times those two parties seem to work in tandem. Harden is so strong that he can push through the first hit and extend up and into the second—almost literally forcing an opponent’s hand. Defenders know better than to reach for the ball when it’s in Harden’s clutches. That point is so self-evident that it would seem needless to mention it in a film session or scouting report. Still they reach. Some wind up clubbing Harden across the arms out of desperation, having been bumped from their initial spot. Others are merely charmed out of their situational awareness to the point of answering the Siren’s call.
Those who don’t wind up fouling Harden are either left behind as he skips toward the rim or pushed aside as he steps back. The latter is hardly a cop-out. In Harden’s hands, the step-back jumper is a legitimately efficient weapon and vital counterbalance in his isolation game. Defenders are at once forced to account for the possibility of Harden’s full forward momentum (and all of the pitfalls that go into avoiding a potential foul) and the option of instant retreat. One or the other is available in almost all instances, leaving the make-or-miss outcome to generally be decided by Harden alone.
As one can tell from his scoring output, that proposition tends to go well for Harden. Nothing in his game is all that surprising in the most general sense; Harden relies on a handful of moves, one dominant direction, and the drive to create contact. In the moment, however, Harden’s defender is reduced to a sort of microsecond-by-microsecond agony. One of the marks of a great player is the ability succeed in exactly the ways an opponent expects. Harden, who remains a baffling cover some six years into his NBA career, unquestionably meets that criterion. Scoring as he does while still searching out teammates for kick-out passes makes Harden one of the game’s best all-around engines for offense. Any team that spreads the floor and entrusts the ball with him could reap huge dividends; Harden drew so much attention last season that he wound up creating more three-pointers for his teammates per game than any other player. Most of those passes (and Harden’s assists in general) are fairly rudimentary feeds to the open man. Every so often, though, Harden will rocket the ball through a delicate window or set up a teammate at an angle that shouldn’t work but does. Harden has the handle and vision of an extraordinary playmaker. Where he diverges from that path is in mentality and role, those same qualities that allow him to compete for the NBA scoring title.
All that keeps Harden from climbing higher on this list is defense. Even after gradual improvement, the best that Harden can do in coverage is to become invisible. Houston hides him, as any team would, for the sake of limiting his exposure and exertion. Success in that approach varies depending on matchup, though at the very least Harden does a far better job of tracking his man off the ball than he did a season ago. Provided that his team has the faculties to cover for him (as Houston does, with Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard, and a team of athletes with active hands), the cost of Harden’s defense is negligible relative to what he produces on offense. He’s only at a loss relative to five players—all of whom create like superstars on offense while contributing positively to a team defense. Separating superstars demands the splitting of hairs. Defensive aptitude, in this case, is a natural part to distinguish Harden from those above him. – R.M.
2014-15: 27.4 PPG, 7.0 APG, 5.6 RPG, 44.0 FG%, 37.5 3P%
Advanced: 26.7 PER, Win Shares: 16.4, +8.50 RPM
4Stephen CurryWarriors | Guard | Last year: 8
Stephen Curry plays a form of basketball judo in which every bit of a defender’s momentum is used against them. The threat of the pull-up jumper is so constant and so real (Curry shot 42.3% last season on pull-up threes, which in itself would rank seventh in the NBA) that it draws defenders close in anticipation of the shot. From there the dance begins. Curry will use a single dribble to escape a defender’s lunge before launching up a clear attempt or, if he senses the opportunity, hesitating slightly. Often Curry’s recovering defender will come rushing back into frame, desperate not to leave the NBA’s best shooter completely unguarded. Curry has learned to jump into that recovering defender when he can for an easy trip to the line, though more often he uses their frenzy to escape yet again and send the defense into full breakdown mode.
The same basic concept applies when Curry moves without the ball. Again, the very possibility that Curry could curl into a quick catch and shot forces the defense to bend over backwards in anticipation. Even handling that exchange often requires the work of multiple defenders; while Curry’s man trails behind, it’s up to the defender assigned to the screener (or some other rotating defender in range) to buy time. Curry doesn’t hesitate. Any big who steps up to stall him is strung out and away from their man, setting up a prime passing angle. Any other defender is attacked quickly and directly, taken from sprinting full speed at Curry into a backpedal against his drive. The floater, the scoop layup, and the step-back jumper are all in play if the situation calls for it. Curry, though, knows well that his tug on a defense is often only the first step in a series that will create an opening elsewhere. The ball leaves his hands willingly—impressive in itself given how explosive a scorer Curry can be.
There are no right answers. Opponents will try to body and hold Curry as much as the game’s officiating will allow. Inevitably he shakes free—as was the case in a second-round series against the Grizzlies that saw Curry find more and more openings as it wore on. A shooter this accurate and this quick to release is a source of walking nightmare; everywhere he goes on the floor, a defense is forced to abandon its core principles to account for his presence. Stretch that influence on possession after possession and eventually new opportunities will come to light.
Curry is insistent on finding them. That’s part of what makes him the best shooter in NBA history; not only is Curry one of the most accurate marksmen in the league’s most three-point-dominant era, but he plays in a way that relentlessly pursues the creation of those shots. Four players in the history of the league had averaged eight three-point attempts per game before Steph. None came close to matching Curry’s percentage on those shots or approximating the value offered in his pursuit. – R.M.
2014-15: 23.8 PPG, 7.7 APG, 4.3 RPG, 48.7 FG%, 44.3 3P%
Advanced: 28.0 PER, Win Shares: 15.7, +9.34 RPM
3Anthony DavisPelicans | Forward | Last year: 4
The tradeoff in giving Kevin Durant the benefit of the doubt as the No. 2 player in our rankings is that it underrates Davis. Fit this one with an asterisk for upward mobility; no other player in the NBA can quite match Davis’s plausible upside as a still-growing 22-year-old MVP candidate. It seems only a matter of time until Davis becomes the consensus choice for the best in the game—a reality that could come to fruition as soon as this season. For now, we prefer LeBron James and a healthy Durant. For tomorrow, we unquestionably prefer Davis.
If that seems like high praise for a player who has yet to win a single playoff game, I’d encourage you to revisit the tape. Davis upturned the best defense in the league by scoring 31.5 points per game (on 54% shooting) against the Warriors, many of them directly at the expense of All-NBA defender Draymond Green. The idea that he can be contained is folly. Davis is so quick in the face-up game as to leave most defenders in the dust and now a deadly mid-range shooter from the top of the floor. The balance in his effectiveness as a pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop option makes his quick moves all the more difficult to preempt, though teams generally err on the side of keeping him as far from the basket as possible.
When Davis gets in close, things tend to get ugly for the defense. The work of covering Davis is, in itself, exhausting; he’s constantly screening and cutting and positioning himself to score, even when a play’s primary action might not seem to call for it. As a result, Davis demands constant vigilance. A defender must somehow eye the ball, mind the direct passing angle to Davis on a potential seal, expect that Davis might dart toward the rim at any time, and stay wary of a lob over the top while still offering the help expected of them. It can’t really be done, as Green—and any number of quality defenders—can well attest.
Perhaps the most impressive quality of Davis’s game is how rarely he comes up empty. Only 6.3% of Davis’ used possessions last season ended in a turnover—the third-lowest mark in the league. Players who do nothing more than sit in the corner awaiting kick-out passes cough up the ball more often. Then, on the near 18 shots a game that Davis takes, he shoots a better percentage (53.5%) from the field than any player at his usage level. Some 14% of his possessions end in fouls, according to Synergy Sports, in total making Davis one of the NBA’s most efficient half-court scorers while operating at Monta Ellis-level usage.
Terrifyingly, Davis is also entering a period of perennial candidacy for the Defensive Player of the Year award. A certain burden of proof first needs to be met; while Davis is an undeniably strong individual defender, his case is weakened by the fact that New Orleans ranked in the bottom 10 last season in points allowed per possession. That seems likely to change next season—the extermination of what may be Davis’ final caveat. Otherwise, any defensive coach in the league would leap at the chance to work with a player who covers ground, swats shots, plays well vertically, and casts a shadow over the entire court with his wingspan. Again: inevitability can be a scary thing in the NBA, but it’s hard to imagine a career track in which Davis isn’t consistently one of the most impactful defensive players in the league.
With all due respect to James and Durant, it’s time we prepare the coronation. Davis isn’t a superstar in waiting—he’s already here, challenging the peak of the basketball talent pool with an ungodly mix of production and efficiency. – R.M.
2014-15: 24.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 2.9 BPG, 1.5 SPG, 53.5 FG%
Advanced: 30.8 PER, Win Shares: 14.0, +8.18 RPM
2Kevin DurantThunder | Forward | Last year: 2
The NBA’s premier scorer was stuck playing defense in this year’s Top 100 discussion, thanks to three surgeries on his right foot in less than seven months and two rising superstars—Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry—turning in career years as he watched from the sidelines. Thunder forward Kevin Durant was no automatic write-in for the No. 2 spot on this year’s list, but he wound up holding steady for the third straight year. Four major factors influenced that decision: the quality of his play prior to his injury, his durability prior to last season, the Thunder’s rough go in his absence, and the sense that he enters 2015–16 reenergized and on track to be fully healthy.
Before last season’s injuries, Durant was last seen holding the 2014 MVP trophy after putting together one of the most devastatingly efficient offensive seasons in NBA history. At 26, Durant very likely has not yet peaked as a scorer or as an all-around player. That’s a fearsome thought: there’s a real chance that Durant comes back better in 2015–16 than at any point during his career.
That his foot didn’t heal properly right off the bat is concerning, as is the fact that foot injuries are notoriously tricky. His long physique, explosive off-the-dribble game and heavy minutes load aren’t doing him any favors when it comes to the possibility of re-injury. Still, three foot surgeries in a short period of time are obviously less concerning than three major knee surgeries, for example, and Durant has no previous health-related red flags. In fact, he has led the league in minutes played three times in his career and he missed a total of just 16 games over his first seven seasons.
Few questioned that Durant was the straw stirring Oklahoma City’s drink, but the Thunder’s topsy-turvy play without him only reinforced his franchise-player level value. The Thunder’s offense dropped from 7th in 2013–14 to 11th in 2014–15, and their defense fell from 5th to 16th. Oklahoma City’s point different fell from +6.3, the third-best in the league, to +2.2, which ranked 12th. The Thunder fell from 59 wins to 45 wins, and from the West’s No. 2 seed to the lottery. The eye test was even less kind than those numbers: By the end of the 2014–15 season, the Thunder had an almost circus-like vibe that stood in stark contrast to the disciplined, if sometimes overly predictable, excellence that had defined the Durant era. His absence left Oklahoma City scrambling just as LeBron James’s departure sent Miami back to the drawing board.
Durant’s presence at USA Basketball’s Las Vegas minicamp helped seal his selection at No. 2. There, he looked rested, in great spirits, and prepared for the free-agency storm that is sure to follow him all season long. The bitterness and edge that had been in his voice during All-Star Weekend, as he was dealing with his foot, were gone, and he made a convincing case that the Thunder were ready to get back to business and make last year look like an anomaly. If ever there was a time to give a player the full benefit of the doubt regarding an injury, this is it. – B.G.
2014-15: 25.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 4.1 APG, 51.0 FG%, 40.3 3P%
Advanced: 27.6 PER, Win Shares: 4.8, +4.20 RPM
1LeBron JamesCavs | Forward | Last year: 1
LeBron James has played for more dominant and more successful teams, he’s been more efficient and made the game look easier, and he’s earned greater individual recognitions than he did in 2014–15. But James has never been as captivating as he was during his one-man act during the 2015 postseason, a staggering individual achievement that lacks a modern precedent and—cue the “Hard Knocks” sweeping soundtrack—may not be done again.
READ MOREThe dramatic tension for James’s playoff performance was set up perfectly by a regular season that was “disappointing” by his standards. The 2014–15 campaign was the first time that James didn’t finish first or second in NBA MVP voting since 2011, it was the first time he didn’t finish first or second in PER since 2007, and it was the first time he didn’t make the All-Defensive team since 2008. It was also the first time James looked physically mortal: midseason back and knee injuries sidelined James for two weeks, the longest stretch of his 12-year career, and he eventually appeared in just 69 games, the first time he had ever missed more than seven in a season. Simultaneously, James averaged a career-low 36.1 minutes per game, meaning that his 2,493 minutes played were nearly 500 fewer than in any of his previous seasons (aside from the 66-game lockout season). Those gaps, coupled with the feel-out nature of the new-look Cavaliers’ first half of the season, produced openings for younger stars like Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Anthony Davis to squeeze onto center stage alongside him.
If James’s longstanding status as the game’s best player suddenly seemed like it might inch towards debatable, for a breath, the feeling didn’t last. Cleveland’s midseason restructuring and his strong comeback after his layoff generated serious momentum that never stopped, no matter how many of his key teammates fell by the wayside. Without Kevin Love and then Kyrie Irving to share the load, James shouldered all of it, drawing comparisons to Atlas as he went, shape-shifting in response to the injuries and various matchups along the way. He slowed the game down, consolidated control of Cleveland’s offense, and found ways to get the most out of his limited teammates. When in doubt, he shot and shot like never before in his career, and even though his efficiency numbers took a hit, Cleveland kept advancing.
The first potential breaking point came midway through a second-round series with the Bulls, as the Cavaliers fell behind 2–1 and coach David Blatt tried so hard to join Chris Webber in the halls of timeout infamy. With Cleveland hanging over the cliff, James lifted his team away from the edge, draining a buzzer-beating game-winner, after overruling his coach’s play call, and leading Cleveland to a 4–2 series win. Things never got quite as tight in the conference finals against Atlanta, but James was there again when the tension briefly mounted in Game 3, posting a 37/18/13 triple double and coming up big late in the overtime victory.
That eye-popping stat line was a taste of what was to come in the Finals, when James scored 40 points in four of six games against the Warriors, the league’s No. 1 defense, and posted two more outrageous triple doubles (39/16/11 in Game 2 and 40/14/11 in Game 5). With barely any rest and a situation so dire that little-known point guard Matthew Dellavedova briefly achieved national fame, James carried Cleveland to within two games of its first championship, despite facing what was arguably the best all-around team of the post-Michael Jordan era.
James’s final postseason numbers were staggering, as well. His 30/11/8 averages are unprecedented in the three-point era. All three of the triple double combinations listed above were unprecedented in postseason history. His usage rate was among the highest ever posted in the playoffs. In addition to his own scoring, James’ generated 21.4 points, per SportVU, meaning he was responsible for 52% of Cleveland’s postseason offense. That figure dwarfed the postseason numbers posted by both Curry (42%) and Harden (41%).
Even though James’s career Finals record dropped to 2–4 and even though he failed to deliver on Nike’s “There’s Always This Year” banner, he was such a force that he absolutely should have been named Finals MVP in defeat. No other player in the modern game could have done all of this—not even close—and it’s even possible that James, now 30, will never again match the volume and scope of his 2015 postseason work. While the crop of superstars chasing James is growing, improving and, yes, gaining ground, James’s playoff run curtailed the possibility of a debate for the No. 1 spot on this year’s list. It’s James, again. – B.G.
2014-15: 25.3 PPG, 7.4 APG, 6.0 RPG, 48.8 FG%, 35.4 3P%
Advanced: 25.9 PER, Win Shares: 10.4, +8.78 RPM