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Top 100 players of 2014: Nos. 30-21

Serge Ibaka has led the NBA in blocks for three straight seasons. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

Serge Ibaka

The Point Forward is proud to offer our list of the top 100 players in the NBA — an exhaustive exercise that seeks to define who will be the best players in the 2013-14 season.

Given the wide variety of players involved and the deep analytical resources available, no single, definitive criterion was used to form this list. Instead, rankings were assigned based on a fluid combination of subjective assessment and objective data. This 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. Past performance (postseason included) weighed heavily in our assessment, with a skew toward the recent. Rookies were not included in this ranking 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. Otherwise, players were ordered based on their complete games — offense and defense both, along with everything in between.

Our countdown of players Nos. 100-51 can be found here and Nos. 50-31 here. For our list of players who just missed the cut, click here. And for those interested in understanding more about the ranking process and the limitations of this exercise in general, make a quick detour here. On Thursday, we’ll unveil Nos. 20-11, followed by Nos. 10-1 on Friday.

A quick introduction for those not familiar with some of the “advanced” statistical measures used below:

PER (Player Efficiency Rating) – PER is a per-minute summary of a player’s efficiency and performance, weighted so that a league-average player registers a 15. It generally skews in favor of big men and does not account for defensive contributions that don’t show up in the box score. 

Win Shares – A metric that uses box score data to estimate the total number of wins a given player contributes. Last season, Win Shares ran on a scale of -1.5 (Michael Beasley) to 19.3 (LeBron James), but only 10 players finished with more than 10.

RAPM (Regularized adjusted plus-minus) — A variation of plus-minus that compares the on-court impact of every NBA player to a league-average standard (0). The adjustment helps account for much of the statistical noise that exists in raw plus-minus measures.

Center Brook Lopez was a consistent source of offense for the Nets last season. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Brook Lopez

30. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets (C, 25)

2012-13 stats: 30.4 MPG, 19.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 52.1 FG%

2012-13 advanced stats: 24.7 PER, 9.0 Win Shares, +3.6 RAPM

Lopez is one of the few big men capable of anchoring a top-10 offense from the interior. Rule changes and trends in defensive coverage have made it more difficult to clear out consistent space for high-volume post threats, but Lopez makes do by exploiting a consistently commanding height advantage. He was Brooklyn's highest-usage scorer last season, the hub for an offense that endured Deron Williams' slow start, Joe Johnson's year-long slump and Gerald Wallace's descent into marginal utility. The plodding 7-footer was the only real constant, an essential component in the Nets' 49-win season.

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Two crucial adjustments helped pave the way for his success last season. The first came on the offensive end, where Lopez approached pick-and-roll sequences with more balance and poise than ever before. In some cases, that translated to cleaner looks on the move, having made the perfect read to beat his defender to the basket. In others, it resulted in Lopez's using the pick-and-roll as a functional entry point into the post. By rolling into the paint and making contact with his defender, Lopez was able to quickly turn and seal to establish prime post position against an out-of-position defense. The clever maneuver enabled Lopez to gain the spatial benefits of a quick pick-and-roll with the measured advantage of a traditional post-up.

The second came in defensive coverage, where Lopez tightened up his movements to make noticeable gains. Players as big as Lopez don't typically need to do all that much to influence shots around the basket consistently; size alone goes a long way, and in Lopez's case he got greater mileage out of his conservative style. He's still so slow laterally that he shouldn't wander much higher than the free-throw line, but Lopez was a more involved defender by avoiding missteps and hesitation. Even without the speed or instincts to ever become a top-flight interior defender, Lopez did well enough to be quite passable.

The rebounding is another story. Lopez catches the most heat for his inability to grab boards on a consistent basis -- a perplexing limitation given his pretty strong lower body and great reach. Still, it's interesting that he's such an easy target for his rebounding woes, whereas Grizzlies center Marc Gasol -- who posted a total rebounding rate 0.3 percent lower than that of Lopez -- gets more or less a free pass. It's all a matter of context, and as long as Lopez has a crew of effective rebounders around him (as he will in Brooklyn this season), most board-induced crises can be averted. -- Rob Mahoney

29. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder (F, 23)

2012-13 stats: 31.1 MPG, 13.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 57.3 FG%

2012-13 advanced stats: 19.4 PER, 9.4 Win Shares, +2.7 RAPM

Looking for a great way to burn an hour or two during the endless wait for the start of the season? Go to's stats page and cue up a video reel of all 242 shots that Ibaka blocked in 2012-13, when he led the league in that category for the third consecutive season. The tape serves as a great reminder of just how many different ways Ibaka can protect the rim with his elite length, dexterity and timing.

Ibaka hides on the weak block, darting over to snare a turning hook from Tim Duncan. He steps across the paint to blow up a Jeff Teague drive attempt and the block is almost an afterthought. He stops long wing players cold at the rim. He volleyball spikes double-clutch runners. He extends to deflect straight-on jumpers. He goes straight up to stop turnarounds in the post. He makes the correct defensive rotation to help Kendrick Perkins and then surprises everyone by getting both hands up faster than his new mark can get off a shot. This list just goes on, and on, and on. This is a special talent, one that earned him All-Defensive first-team recognition for the second season in a row and placed him third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.

In his fourth season, his first without James Harden in the fold, Ibaka was asked to do more on the other end. Even though Kevin Martin stepped cleanly into the designated third scorer role, Ibaka saw his opportunities increase. He generally made the most of the open looks generated by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Ibaka averaged a career high in both points and field-goal percentage. An improved mid-range jumper, which he shoots well from the elbows and the baseline, made him a key part of Oklahoma City's second-ranked offense. However, Ibaka, like Martin, crumbled a bit on offense during the playoffs once Westbrook was lost to a knee injury.

Ibaka's play without Westbrook provided a nice frame of reference for judging his development. A very productive offensive rebounder since his rookie year, Ibaka has long feasted on second-chance opportunities and lob plays in the basket area. Last year, he showed the ability to be consistently effective from virtually everywhere inside the arc, as long as the heavy lifting of shot creation was done for him. Take away one of Ibaka's table-setters and ask him to initiate more of his own looks, either in the block or facing up against a set defense, and things got more difficult (and his shooting numbers got less impressive). That he struggled a bit in uncharted territory was no surprise, and it shouldn't drastically alter the general perception of him as one of the league's best third wheels.

Landing at No. 29 on this list puts Ibaka roughly equidistant between some of the biggest names at his position -- Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, Miami's Chris Bosh and Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge -- and an up-and-comer such as Milwaukee's Larry Sanders, who makes similar waves on defense but hasn't yet taken the next step on the offensive end. That's exactly where he should be for now, but there's really nothing stopping him from moving up to join the group of established All-Stars over the next few seasons. — Ben Golliver

28. Kevin Garnett, Brooklyn Nets (F/C, 37)

2012-13 stats: 29.7 MPG, 14.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 49.6 FG%

2012-13 advanced stats: 19.2 PER, 5.6 Win Shares, +4.1 RAPM

Garnett's career playing-time numbers -- more than 48,000 regular-season minutes and 5,000 playoff minutes -- loom like a "check engine" light. But, to his immense credit, Garnett is still running great, even after reportedly toying with the idea of retirement in recent years. Yes, the miles are showing: Garnett missed 14 games last season and did not play in nearly one-fifth of Boston's regular-season games over the last five years, and his raw numbers clearly dropped a shelf once his minutes were cut from the upper 30s to the lower 30s upon his 2007 arrival in Boston.

Still, when looking at his per-minute stats, it's stunning how consistent (and consistently good) he's been as he's progressed through his mid-30s. From 2008-09 through last season, on a per-36 basis, Garnett has averaged between 17.1 and 18.3 points, 8.8 and 10.2 rebounds, 2.8 and 3.2 assists and 1.2 and 1.5 steals and shot between 49.6 and 52.8 percent. His PER has remained well above average, hovering between 19.2 and 21.2, and his RAPM last year ranked 22nd in the NBA. He was the leading rebounder during the 2012 playoffs and he grabbed 17 or more rebounds in three of Boston's six playoff games against New York last season.

The really impressive number nuggets: Boston's defensive rating improved a whopping 8.4 points (from 104.6 to 96.2) when Garnett took the court last season, and he was one of just eight players to post a defensive rating less than 100 while playing at least 29 minutes a game (the others: Marc Gasol, David West, Paul George, Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph, Joakim Noah and Kawhi Leonard). In hindsight, somebody should have tossed him a third-place vote for Defensive Player of the Year as a respectful tip of the cap, especially when Boston's defense finished sixth in efficiency and players such as Trevor Ariza and Kenneth Faried each lucked into a second-place vote. Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who played more than 500 minutes fewer than Garnett and put up significantly worse defensive numbers across the board, somehow appeared on five ballots. What a mess. Anyway.

Boston's blockbuster trade of Garnett to Brooklyn this summer wasn't executed based on the belief that the 15-time All-Star is done. Rather, the trade developed because Boston tried, and failed, to surround Garnett with sufficient talent to manufacture a championship window around him. Boxed in by the financial implications of those efforts, the Celtics sent Garnett -- and Paul Pierce -- to a Nets franchise that possesses the financial resources and veteran star power to take a couple cracks at a title before Garnett's contract is up in 2015. One (fairly convincing) way to justify Brooklyn's big-dollar gamble: Dwight Howard is the only player ranked above Garnett and Pierce (No. 32) on this list who changed teams this offseason. — B.G.

27. Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks (C, 30)

2012-13 stats: 32.8 MPG, 10.4 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 63.8 FG%

2012-13 advanced stats: 18.9 PER, 9.3 Win Shares, +5.3 RAPM

The 2013 playoffs didn't leave a favorable lasting impression of Chandler, who was tossed aside by the Pacers' bruising big men and marginalized during the six-game series while struggling through illness and the lingering effects of a neck injury. But when healthy, Chandler ranks as one of the better two-way centers in the game. His influence was all that stood between New York's below-average defense and a complete collapse. The mounting defensive liabilities in the Knicks' rotation stretched Chandler thin. He wasn't able to make up for every botched rotation or save every blow-by, but his general impact was profound enough to compensate for a group of perimeter defenders that was so often a step slow.

Chandler does a fantastic job of covering ground quickly and intelligently. He regularly cuts off drives and challenges shot attempts by taking optimally disruptive angles. Perhaps because of his athleticism, Chandler doesn't get enough credit for his imposing standstill presence while guarding the post. That area of his game was uncharacteristically weak against Roy Hibbert in the playoffs and immediately signaled an extenuating circumstance. On a typical post sequence, Chandler pushes hard to deny his opponent position, challenging him physically despite being a relatively lean interior defender. He just didn't have that same fight against the Pacers in the postseason, but there's every reason to think that he's capable of returning to form.

Chandler won the 2011-12 Defensive Player of the Year award and has made three consecutive All-Defensive teams, but his offensive impact can be just as dramatic. He's such an effective finisher on lobs and in the pick-and-roll that opponents have to pay him mind, lest they surrender an easy look to the league leader in true shooting percentage. By virtue of that gravity, Chandler's teammates tend to benefit from clearer driving lanes and cleaner shot attempts. It takes an exceptional player to boast that kind of clout, but Chandler has earned the benefit by understanding an offense and his role within it. -- R.M.

26. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics (G, 27)

2012-13 stats: 37.4 MPG, 13.7 PPG, 11.1 APG, 5.6 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 48.4 FG%, 24.0 3FG%

2012-13 advanced stats: 18.1 PER, 3.2 Win Shares, +0.6 RAPM

Note: Rondo played only 38 games last season due to a knee injury

Besides the sample-size uncertainty that surrounds the younger players on this list, the trickiest variables to weigh in producing the top 100 were recent injuries and radically changed team circumstances. Rondo, who tore his ACL in February and watched Boston dismantle its aging roster this offseason, joins the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and the Cavaliers' Andrew Bynum among the perplexing group of stars dealing with both major health factors and new roster dynamics. Given his endless series of red flags, Bynum (No. 60) is a pretty unassailable first choice as "most difficult player to rank," but Rondo's (relative) youth and the many polarizing holes in his game make him a strong contender for second.

When will Rondo be back? Nobody knows. What will he look like, exactly, once he's surrounded by Kelly Olynyk and Gerald Wallace instead of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce? Nobody knows.

Even with Hall of Famers surrounding him, Rondo wasn't able to guide the Celtics to an above-average mark in offensive efficiency during the last three seasons. Defensively, Rondo's instinctive gambling has put him among the league leaders in steals annually, but he no longer has Garnett to serve as an intelligent, long and fearsome safety net. Rondo's other major shortcomings -- his game-to-game inconsistency, lack of shooting range and limited ability to get to, and convert from, the free-throw line -- will also be subject to further exposure and critique whenever the Celtics' offensive attack stalls out. Some have raised questions about how Brad Stevens, a first-time NBA coach, will handle Rondo's bristly personality.

And yet, Rondo -- a four-time All-Star, 2012 All-NBA third-team selection and 2012 All-Defensive second-team pick -- cannot be written off, not when he mounted a furious challenge to the Heat's supremacy just 16 months ago. For those who have already forgotten: Rondo averaged 20.9 points, 11.3 assists, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, hanging 44 points on Miami in Game 2 and posting a 22/14/10 triple-double in Game 7. Pick your favorite point guard -- Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving -- and ask yourself whether he, or any of the others, has had a more impressive playoff series over the last five years than Rondo's.

The sky-scraping height of that high point, his peerless distribution creativity (now that age finally caught up to Steve Nash) and the 2008 championship ring that glistens from his résumé should be more than enough to give a bit of a grace period to Rondo's reputation as we wait to see how quickly he gets back to 100 percent health and how the Celtics ultimately decide to handle his role in their uncertain future. — B.G.

Paul George (left) caught the Heat's attention during the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. (Heinz Kluetmeier/SI)

Paul George

25. Paul George, Indiana Pacers (F, 23)

2012-13 stats: 37.6 MPG, 17.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.8 SPG, 41.9 FG%, 36.2 3FG%

2012-13 advanced stats: 16.8 PER, 9.0 Win Shares, +2.9 RAPM

George has been tabbed as a burgeoning star, but he hasn't reached that level in any traditional sense yet. As a scorer, he's still merely solid; his average of 16.7 points per 36 minutes last season was less than that of players such as DeMar DeRozan, Gerald Henderson and Corey Brewer. As a shot creator, he's still incredibly sloppy; George's shooting inefficiency matched that of Josh Smith and Jeremy Lin in terms of effective field-goal percentage, while iffy dribbling provided a consistent drain on his production. He turned the ball over on nearly a quarter of the pick-and-rolls he ran last season, according to Synergy Sports, made just 35.9 percent of his shots as an isolated scorer and failed to elevate the Pacers' offense beyond being average at best.

This isn't to say that George is in any way a bad player or to imply that he won't soon be great. But the comparisons to ball-dominant stars are neither fair nor sensible, as George does so much of his finest work in other phases of the game.

That work often begins on the defensive end, where George is uniquely suited to bother the hell out of the NBA's best wing scorers. He can be a bit vulnerable to bigger, stronger forwards who feel comfortable working from the post (i.e., LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony), but even they have to loft attempts over George's elastic arms and deal with him contesting every step and dribble. He's so quick that he doesn't need to give any opponent a buffer, leading to smothering, dialed-in defense from the three-point line in.

George augments his defensive talents with a knack for rebounding. Only a handful of wing players grabbed a greater percentage of available boards last season. That skill, coupled with a career-high 4.1 assists per game, is where I suspect the claims of traditional stardom begin to materialize. George does appear to do it all when gauged on a very basic statistical level, and he passes the eye test as a hyper-athletic wing with obvious talent. But it doesn't take much to see that he's still far more suited for a supporting role right now, having only managed to surpass 40 percent shooting from the field because of off-ball action (cuts, offensive boards, hand-offs) and transition opportunities. His all-around game makes him a star all the same, but he's a world (or a few seasons of development) removed from the style of other wing creators. -- R.M.

24. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets (G, 29)

2012-13 stats: 36.4 MPG, 18.9 PPG, 7.7 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 44.0 FG%, 37.8 3FG%

2012-13 advanced stats: 20.3 PER, 10.9 Win Shares, +2.3 RAPM

Williams is a laundry list of open questions. Is he the point guard who averaged 16.7 points and shot 41.3 percent from the field before the All-Star break, missing out on being selected to the game for the first time since 2009? Is he the point guard who got injections into his bothersome ankles during the break and went on to average 22.9 points and shoot 48.1 percent down the stretch? Was he clearly the best player on a 49-win Nets team, the end of coach Avery Johnson, both of those things, or neither of those things? Did he answer some questions by getting back to the playoffs for the first time since the Jazz traded him or did he raise more by losing a Game 7 on his home court to a team without two key players? Did he do absolutely everything that Brooklyn could have asked for after signing him to a five-year, $98.8 million extension? Is the "edginess" to his personality an actual concern or was it overblown? That's really just a sampling. The questions raised by his mid-career turbulence could go on all day.

From all of that clutter, it seems reasonable to conclude that Williams' 2012-13 season improved significantly as it went along, but not enough to warrant uninhibited praise. He somewhat resembles the 20-and-10 guy from years past -- the big, physical point guard who wore down opponents and ran a steady ship -- but something's been missing.

That something could be good health (he dealt with a wrist issue in addition to the ankle problems). That something could be A+ conditioning. That something could have been the quality of his teammates (he arrived in New Jersey in 2011 with a rough collection of "talent" around him and it's been a bit of a revolving door since). That something could be a fully functional relationship with his coach (the end of the Johnson era got very ugly and interim coach P.J. Carlesimo was dumped immediately after the playoffs). That something could merely be a lack of continuity with his key teammates, as Nets GM Billy King has worked rapidly (and owner Mikhail Prokhorov has spent extravagantly) to surround Williams with contender-level skill at every position.

If Williams' ranking seems a bit low, and it might considering his lofty reputation in past years, remember that he hasn't won a playoff series since 2010 and that his PER has slipped slightly, landing outside the top-five point guards after spending 2009, 2010 and 2011 ranked either third or fourth at his position. It's not that he's tumbled so much as a few other highly qualified candidates have slipped past him, possibly on a temporary basis. For context, Williams is No. 7 among point guards on this list, but it's a very fluid group: Ranked above him are a recent MVP, three players who finished in the top nine of the 2013 MVP voting, multiple perennial All-NBA selections, four 2013 All-Stars and a number of guys coming off big-time performances in last season's playoffs. The competition here is just vicious, and Williams does suffer on the "What have you done for me lately?" front.

The good news for Williams is that Prokhorov has spared no expense in building a deep, tested roster that is ready to make a postseason run. Jason Kidd, Brooklyn's new coach, has been where Williams wants to go, and the two should see eye-to-eye because of it. The Nets have added a back-line defensive stopper (Garnett) to shore up their interior and another perimeter scoring threat (Paul Pierce) to keep defenses honest. Everything is in place for a reputation-righting season for Williams. It's up to him now. — B.G.

Behind Roy Hibbert (55), Indiana led the NBA in defensive efficiency last season. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

Roy Hibbert

23. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers (C, 26)

2012-13 stats: 28.7 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 1.4 APG, 44.8 FG%

2012-13 advanced stats: 17.3 PER, 6.1 Win Shares, +4.6 RAPM

Indiana's playoff run last season was essentially a full-time campaign to raise awareness of Hibbert's defense. His exploits were already fairly well established among those in the know; the Pacers led the NBA in points allowed per possession, in part because of elite marks in both opponent attempts and opponent shooting percentage in the restricted area. Protecting the basket at the level Hibbert does creates a baseline for outstanding team coverage, and while that was never more clear than in Indiana's warding off Miami's offense from getting to the rim during the Eastern Conference finals, it's not as if the Pacers' success in that regard were some recent development.

What is relatively new, however, is Hibbert's ability to play big minutes without a decline in his performance. In previous seasons, consistent work on both ends of the floor had often left Hibbert drained, contributing to his playing fewer than 30 minutes per game to avoid burnout. That trend continued through the 2012-13 regular season, but in the playoffs Hibbert averaged 36.5 minutes without incident. That change helped the Pacers sustain their superb defense against especially threatening scorers, and cemented Hibbert's standing as a high-usage player on both ends of the floor.

But Hibbert's offensive game doesn't quite measure up to his All-NBA defense, despite evident skill. Today's post scorers have to be overwhelmingly efficient to justify a huge investment of possessions down low, and Hibbert doesn't quite meet that threshold. His size is a huge advantage that enables him to generate easy points. But he scores on only 42.4 percent of his shot attempts in the post (a number that doesn't stack up well with the NBA's better post-up big men), according to Synergy Sports, and earns a foul on just 6.2 percent of his post-up possessions. Hibbert is simply too big to get the benefit of the doubt on many potential foul calls and too good a free-throw shooter (72.9 percent for his five-year career) for opponents to wrap up intentionally. That means fewer trips to the line than one might think, leaving his offensive game to hinge on underwhelming shooting numbers.

Hibbert is still clearly valuable, particularly to a team as well-balanced as the Pacers. But he's not an offensive superstar, no matter his throwback appeal as an archetypal, low-post center. -- R.M.

22. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks (C, 27)

2012-13 stats: 37.2 MPG, 17.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 54.3 FG%

2012-13 advanced stats: 19.8 PER, 8.8 Win Shares, +1.7 RAPM

Versatility, thy name is Al Horford. The Hawks' big man may well be the league's least intrusive star -- so astonishingly well-rounded that he blends seamlessly into any roster or system. He's either a power forward or a center, a facilitator or scorer, a post defender or a roving helper. Horford has already worn quite a few hats in his six seasons with the Hawks, but with Josh Smith's departure and Atlanta's reshaped roster, he's surely due to don a few more. That adjustment is no burden for a player of such varied skills. Horford simply shifts from one strength to another, ever in service of the greater good.

Horford looks to complement by default. His offensive point of reference lies at the elbow, where he's able to orchestrate plays and see the entire floor. He's a knockdown shooter from that range -- particularly on the left side, where he converted 52.8 percent from the high wing/elbow area last season, according to Vorped -- but also comfortable triggering a particular cutter or attacking the basket himself.

He is no less potent if led to operate from another area of the court. That same shooting ability makes him a flexible pick-and-roll option, fit to pop out into an open jumper or roll toward the rim without any cost to his trademark efficiency. Plus, Horford manages to retain his feel for playmaking even after catching the ball on the move; he's one of the best in the league at rerouting pick-and-roll sequences on the fly, for which Atlanta's shooters -- the most common beneficiaries of Horford's kick-outs -- owe him a debt of gratitude. A sophisticated post game also accounts for nearly a quarter of Horford's possession usage, per Synergy Sports, and provides a more static setup when the Hawks don't have time for a full survey of the floor. Horford finds ways to accomplish plenty even when catching the ball late in the clock.

Defensively, Horford is a bit less exceptional than a few of the big men already covered on this list, but his unfailing reliability makes him ideal for help coverage. He has no problem rectifying his teammates' errors and limitations from the back line, though, frankly, Horford was -- at times -- Atlanta's top perimeter defender as well. That kind of assignment would never happen by design, but Horford handled switches and hedges about as well as any big man could, thanks to his agility and feel for the game. -- R.M.

Joakim Noah lifts the Bulls with his effort on both ends of the court. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Joakim Noah

21. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls (C, 28)

2012-13 stats: 36.8 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.1 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 48.1 FG%

2012-13 advanced stats: 18.1 PER, 7.3 Win Shares, +4.6 RAPM

There's more than a little "Hemingway protagonist" to Noah, who responded to Derrick Rose's impossible-to-overcome injury absence last season by pushing himself, his body and his game to every possible limit. Chicago's Game 7 victory against Brooklyn in the first round -- on the road sans Rose and Luol Deng -- was his masterpiece: 24 points (on 12-for-17 shooting), 14 rebounds and six blocks in 40 minutes. "I'll remember this for the rest of my life," he said afterward. That performance summed up everything that makes Noah great: his unwavering confidence (he guaranteed a victory), nonstop, productive energy, reliable and thorough defensive impact and an insatiable will to win.

The standard (double-double every night) and advanced statistics (top-15 in the NBA In RAPM) agree: Noah was a very valuable contributor last season, even if his efficiency dipped slightly under the strain of more minutes that accompanied center Omer Asik's free-agent departure. Noah was selected to his first All-Star Game and the All-Defensive first team. He finished fourth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, and he just might have won the award if plantar fasciitis hadn't limited him down the stretch. Bum wheel or not, Noah posted career highs across the board and anchored a top-five defense for the third straight season. Chicago's defensive efficiency was a full five points better (98.4 to 103.4) when its long, mobile center was on the court.

The lasting image of Noah's season turned out to be that crazy Miami fan flipping him off as he left the court during the conference semifinals, yet another chapter in a fierce Heat/Bulls rivalry that once prompted him to dub Miami "Hollywood as hell." Looking at the image now, one can't help but guess that Noah was telling himself: "Just wait until Derrick is back." Regardless of how the futures of Deng and Carlos Boozer play out, the combination of Noah and Rose, plus coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive genius, should make the Bulls a top contender in the East for years to come. Really, outside of LeBron James/Whoever, Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard/James Harden and maybe Chris Paul/Blake Griffin, how many duos offer greater promise over the next half-decade than Rose/Noah? — B.G.

Statistical support for this post courtesy of and Jeremias Engelmann.

Monday: Nos. 100-51

Tuesday: 50-31

Wednesday: 30-21

Thursday: 20-11

Friday: 10-1