SI.com's Top 100 NBA players of 2015
SI.com is proud to offer our list of the Top 100 NBA players of 2015, an exhaustive exercise that seeks to define who will be the league's best in the 2014-15 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. 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, and players who are expected to miss the entire season -- such as Pacers forward Paul George – were excluded. Past performance (postseason included) weighed heavily in our assessment, with a skew toward the recent. First-year players -- including delayed rookies like Sixers center Nerlens Noel -- 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. With those exclusions squared away, dive into our list. For those interested in understanding more about the ranking process and the limitations of this exercise in general, make a quick detour here.
Please feel free to take a look back to SI.com’s Top 100 Players of 2014 list here. This year’s list includes each player’s ranking from last year for comparison purposes.
100Boris Diaw, SpursForward | Age: 32
6-8, 250 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 9.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.8 APG, 52.1 FG%, 40.2 3P%
• Advanced: 14.1 PER, 4.9 Win Shares, 0.6 RAPM
Diaw may not have taken home Finals MVP, but the versatile, pass-happy stretch forward did prove to be one of the most influential postseason X-factors in recent memory during the Spurs' 2014 title run.
After fellow Frenchman Tony Parker went down with an ankle injury, it was Diaw who stepped up and rode shotgun to Tim Duncan in a series-clinching OT thriller against the Thunder in the West finals. And, after a dominant performance by LeBron James in Game 2 of the Finals, it was Diaw’s insertion into the starting lineup that opened up San Antonio’s beautiful offense and led to three consecutive blowout victories over Miami.
Diaw has often been a mystery to his coaches during his 11-year career -- he defied a clear positional fit, he liked to pass too much, he enjoyed food too much -- but in San Antonio he found a like-minded, unselfish culture and elevated his game to new heights. -- Ben Golliver
99Kevin Martin, WolvesGuard | Age: 31
6-7, 195 pounds
Last year: No. 73
• 14.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.4 APG, 43.8 FG%, 39.5 3P%
• 12.8 PER, 1.8 Win Shares, 1.0 RAPM
If held against the standard of the league's best players, Martin's deficits are painfully apparent.
The shooting guard is a frequent defensive target for eager scorers because he doesn’t have the body type to offer much resistance or the instincts to maneuver well in space. He's no playmaker, either, having assisted lightly throughout his 10-year career. But Martin's excellence as a source of offense preserves his place on this list. His production and efficiency both hold well in a complementary role. In his last two seasons, Martin has hit 42.6 percent of his three-pointers in support of two superstars in Oklahoma City and approached 20 points per game in a larger role for Minnesota. Martin’s still got it, provided his limitations can be accounted for. -- Rob Mahoney
98Jimmy Butler, BULLSGuard | Age: 24
6-7, 220 pounds
Last year: No. 90
•13.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, 39.7 FG%, 28.3 3P%
•13.6 PER, 7.1 Win Shares, 0.8 RAPM
Butler, who is entering his fourth season, has already established himself as one of the NBA’s best lockdown defenders.
He held shooting guards to a Player Efficency Rating of 11.0 and small forwards to a PER of 10.1 last season, according to 82games.com. Hitting those marks requires unbelievable endurance. Not only does Butler consistently face active, top scorers, but last season he also ranked second in minutes per game and averaged a ridiculous 41.1 after Chicago traded another wing iron man, Luol Deng, in January.
Butler's brand of offense is equally energetic if less finely tuned, with last season’s shooting numbers dipping sharply. Still, he's responsible enough in his shot selection and approach to maximize his overall value. -- R.M.
97Anderson Varejao, CavsCenter | Age: 31
6-11, 267 pounds
Last year: No. 662013-14 statistics
•8.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 0.6 BPG, 49.5 FG%
17.1 PER, 5.4 Win Shares, 2.3 RAPM
LeBron James has singled out Varejao as one of his favorite teammates for obvious reasons: a high-energy, blue-collar big man with impressive rebounding rates and a commitment to defense.
Not to mention a professionalism that was on display as the Brazilian big man endured four years of losing, injuries, trade rumors and coaching and front-office changes in Cleveland after James bolted for Miami. Even on a 33-49 team last season, Varejao made his mark in 65 games, his most since 2009-10: Cleveland was significantly better on both sides of the ball when he was on the court (103.5 offensive rating, 102.4 defensive rating) compared to when he was off (99.6 offensive rating, 106.7 defensive rating). The early-season stories will emphasize the importance of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving establishing chemistry, but the Cavaliers’ title hopes hinge just as much on Varejao’s ability to stay on the court. -- B.G.
96Danny Green, SpursGuard | Age: 27
6-6, 215 pounds
Last year: No. 96
• 9.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 43.2 FG%, 41.5 3P%
• 13.9 PER, 4.2 Win Shares, 1.3 RAPM
Green could play with any teammates in any system and offer clear value. Such is the benefit of the unassuming role player who excels at what he's asked to do.
There are only a handful of spot-up shooters better than Green, and even fewer among them who can also shoot so accurately after coming off a screen (49 percent, according to Synergy Sports). He could be parked in the corner or moved around to counterbalance strong-side action, all without compromising his efficiency. If his shooting and cutting weren't enough to make Green a worthwhile piece, consider that he defends the 1, 2 and 3 capably. -- R.M.
95J.R. Smith, KnicksGuard | Age: 28
6-6, 220 pounds
Last year: No. 83
• 14.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, 41.5 FG%, 39.4 3P%
• 14.0 PER, 3.7 Win Shares, 1.7 RAPM
Even an acid-tripping Ken Kesey couldn’t have dreamed up all of the horrible, damaging and embarrassing twists and turns to Smith’s 2013-14 season, which just so happened to occur immediately after he signed a three-year, $19.5 million deal.
Surprise knee surgery. Drug suspension. Shoelace stunts. Twitter threats. Those were the major headlines; his individual numbers weren’t any prettier for a 37-45 team. Smith regressed as a scorer, rebounder and foul-drawer. His PER and Win Shares both took noticeable hits too. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports famously jabbed Smith as a “soft, spoiled, suburban jump-shooter,” a claim that was at least somewhat substantiated by shot-chart data: more than 81 percent of Smith’s attempts came from outside the painted area, a 10 percent increase from the previous season. -- B.G.
94Kemba Walker, HornetsGuard | Age: 24
6-1, 184 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 17.7 PPG, 6.1 APG, 4.2 RPG, 39.3 FG%, 33.3 3P%
• 16.8 PER, 5.1 Win Shares, 0.8 RAPM
Walker's game oozes moxie. From every slick crossover to smooth fadeaway, the intrepid ball handler has the air of a player in complete control.
The only problem is that Walker doesn't perform in a way that would validate his confident approach yet. Everything he does is predicated on tough shot-making and dribble probing, both stylistically suited for a starring, ball-dominant role. For as many impressive plays as Walker makes with the ball, though, he isn't the kind of point guard who can really distinguish himself from his counterparts. Walker shot only 39.3 percent and finished with so-so assist marks last season on a Charlotte team that ranked 24th in offensive efficiency. His high scoring average isn’t enough to make him a standout, but the ninth pick in 2011 still has room to grow. -- R.M.
93J.J. Redick, ClippersGuard | Age: 30
6-4, 190 pounds
Last year: No. 82
• 15.2 PPG, 2.2 APG, 2.1 RPG, 45.5 FG%, 39.5 3P%
• 16.6 PER, 3 Win Shares, -0.1 RAPM
The Clippers’ thinking in parting with Eric Bledsoe to acquire Redick in July 2013 was clear as day: the addition of a dependable three-point shooter could turn a devastating offensive attack into a virtually unstoppable one by keeping the court as open as possible for Chris Paul’s pick-and-roll and giving Blake Griffin another kick-out option when defenses loaded up on him.
That’s pretty much exactly how it played out, at least when Redick was healthy. He posted a team-high 113.1 offensive rating and the Clippers reeled off 13 double-digits wins and a 24-11 record with him in the lineup.
L.A.’s well-balanced projected starting lineup of Paul, Redick, Matt Barnes, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan had a strong plus-9.6 net rating in limited time together last season, suggesting that the Clippers can be as potent as ever, even as they deal with roster turnover on the perimeter. The biggest issue for Redick last season was a series of injuries that limited him to 35 games. The Clippers need a healthy Redick to contend for a championship. -- B.G.
92Jeff Teague, HawksGuard | Age: 26
6-2, 181 pounds
Last year: No. 78
• 16.5 PPG, 6.7 APG, 2.6 RPG, 43.8 FG%, 32.9 3P%
• 17.2 PER, 5.2 Win Shares, -0.7 RAPM
Teague showed real improvement in using his quickness to maneuver from the perimeter to the rim with the ball in his first season with coach Mike Budenholzer.
Where Teague struggles is in deciding when to drive into the help (to draw contact) and when to steer around it, a split difference leading to both an underwhelming performance on attempts in the restricted area and a free-throw rate that’s lower than it could be. Teague's jumper is in a similar middle ground, as his good balance and follow-through haven’t translated to consistent accuracy. But the foundation is in place, both with Teague’s skill set and the combination of teammates and system, for continued progress. It's now on Teague to take those next steps. -- R.M.
91Ersan Ilyasova, BucksForward | Age: 27
6-10, 235 pounds
Last year: 61
• 11.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.3 APG, 40.9 FG%, 28.2 3P%
• 13.9 PER, 1.6 Win Shares, -1.7 RAPM
An ankle injury limited Ilyasova to 55 games and bothered him all last season, one of the worst of his six-year career.
It was evident that he never quite got his feet under him; he lacked spring as a rebounder and saw his three-point shooting drop to 28.2 percent from 44.8 percent over the previous two seasons. The hobbled Ilyasova was just another unremarkable component of a horrible Bucks team.
There’s reason to give Ilyasova the benefit of the doubt, though. Before last season, Ilyasova had emerged as a top floor-spacing power forward and a commendable rebounder (10.3 boards per 36 minutes from 2011-13). He and Kevin Love are the only two players to shoot 40 percent or better from beyond the arc and grab 10 or more rebounds per 36 minutes in a season over the last five years. Ilyasova also has the height and length to at least be a bothersome defender at times, if only to the point of being passable.
If the 2013-14 version of Ilyasova is a true representation of his value, he has no place on his list. If Ilyasova again stretches the floor, moves without the ball and competes for rebounds at a high level, however, he could deserve a ranking much higher. -- R.M.
90Isaiah Thomas, SunsGuard | Age: 25
5-9, 185 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 20.3 PPG, 6.3 APG, 2.9 RPG, 45.3 FG%, 34.9 3P%
• 20.5 PER, 7.7 Win Shares, 0.9 RAPM
In his third season, Thomas put up career-best numbers that rivaled those of just about everyone at his position.
The last pick in the 2011 draft ranked fourth among point guards and No. 24 overall with a 20.5 PER, joining perennial All-Stars LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook as the only players to average 20 points and six assists. The rub, of course, is that all of those points and all of those assists didn’t translate to many victories for the hapless Kings. His production didn’t even translate to a new contract with Sacramento, which sent Thomas packing to Phoenix in a sign-and-trade deal.
The Kings finished well below average on both sides of the ball last season, and the undersized Thomas hasn’t yet shown that he can consistently run a high-performing offense or make do defensively. His fit with the Suns looks excellent, though. Coach Jeff Hornacek will welcome Thomas’ attacking mind-set and pick-and-roll skill to an explosive perimeter rotation. -- B.G.
89Nikola Vucevic, MagicCenter | Age: 23
7-0, 250 pounds
Last year: 100
• 14.2 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.8 BPG, 50.7 FG%
• 18.8 PER, 4.4 Win Shares, 0.1 RAPM
Vucevic doesn't deal in the spectacular. He goes about his business quietly for a drab team plodding through a long-term rebuild.
Even among Magic players, Vucevic was less effective last season than fringe All-Star Arron Afflalo and less intriguing than rookie guard Victor Oladipo, casting him further into the background on the NBA scene.
None of this is fair to a fine young player with a better all-around game than he's given credit. The lanky center was one of the 15 best rebounders by percentage on both sides of the ball last season, and ranked seventh overall. Rebounders of that quality tend to be either stars (Dwight Howard) or specialists (Reggie Evans). Vucevic is somewhere in between: He is a decent offensive player who scores efficiently despite his team's sloppy execution, and a respectable defender even without blocking shots. -- R.M.
88Jose Calderon, KnicksGuard | Age: 32
6-3, 211 pounds
Last year: No. 70
• 11.4 PPG, 4.7 APG, 2.4 RPG, 45.6 FG%, 44.9 3P%
• 15.2 PER, 6.3 Win Shares, -3.0 RAPM
The Spanish point guard is a poor defender, but not for lack of effort. Calderon works to stay in front of quicker players, sliding around on every juke and scrambling when he loses a step on his man.
The 32-year-old just doesn't have the lateral quickness to hang in those situations, demanding that his team instead stash him on some corner shooter and hope for the best.
Calderon justifies the trouble with sharp offensive play. The new Knick ranks as one of the best all-around shooters in the game, as potent from three-point range last season when spotting up (47.5 percent) as when working the pick-and-roll (46.6 percent). He is a consummate floor spacer who, if the defense recovers to contest his shot, will move the ball to the next best option without fail. Calderon is the rare playmaker who doesn't need to dominate the ball to create. -- R.M.
87Ricky Rubio, WolvesGuard | Age: 23
6-4, 185 pounds
Last year: No. 93
• 9.5 PPG, 8.6 APG, 4.2 RPG, 38.1 FG%, 33.1 3P%
• 15.4 PER, 5.9 Win Shares, 2.0 RAPM
Rubio doesn't shoot well and is at times reluctant to try, but he shines in almost every other phase of the game.
Those contributions begin with the Spaniard’s remarkable playmaking. The point guard has a keen eye for teammates in position to take easy looks -- there may be no better passer alive at setting up a big man lurking around the baseline -- offsetting the fact that he has trouble converting such shots himself and helping him have a positive offensive influence overall. He finished fourth in assists per game last season and ranked first in passes leading to free-throw attempts (per SportVU). Rubio sees through the clutter and speed of the game like few can.
He also rates among the best defenders at point guard by using his size and length to disrupt offenses at the point of attack. Not only did Rubio lead the NBA in steal percentage, but he also registered the biggest impact in turning opponents over on a team level, according to data from Jeremias Engelmann. That clout is a convergence of attributes: Rubio's ability to control his opponents off the dribble, instinct-driven jumps into the passing lane and subtle edging to deflect feeds and force passers into more difficult angles. Rubio, no matter his joyful affectations, is a genuine defensive terror. -- R.M.
86Jamal Crawford, ClippersGuard | Age: 34
6-5, 200 pounds
Last year: No. 76
• 18.6 PPG, 3.2 APG, 2.3 RPG, 41.6 FG%, 36.1 3P%
• 17.4 PER, 5.3 Win Shares, -0.5 RAPM
When Crawford joined the Clippers in 2012, he faced plenty of questions after a disappointing one-year stint with the Blazers. Could he resuscitate his shooting numbers? Had he entered age-related decline? He’s responded by enjoying a late-career resurgence and becoming one of the Clippers’ most reliable players.
His bread-and-butter skills – mesmerizing ball-handling, shot creation and a scorer’s mentality – haven’t changed, but last season’s scoring average was his highest since 2008-09 and helped him earn his second Sixth Man Award. He also ranked fourth in fourth-quarter points with an average of 6.8, trailing Kevin Durant, James Harden and Stephen Curry.
Crawford’s warts – over-dribbling and lack of defensive impact – have similarly remained unchanged, but the Clippers now find themselves coveting any and all consistency on the perimeter: Darren Collison, Willie Green and Jared Dudley are all gone, J.J. Redick is looking to move past an injury-plagued season and Jordan Farmar is ready to enter the mix. Amid all of that coming and going, coach Doc Rivers knows that he can count on Crawford as a second-unit anchor and a late-game threat. -- B.G.
85Andrei Kirilenko, NetsForward | Age: 33
6-9, 235 pounds
Last year: No. 49
• 5.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 51.3 FG%
• 12.5 PER, 1.3 Win Shares, 1.2 RAPM
Has Kirilenko aged out of high-level use? The fact that his drop-off last season was so sharp and timed so closely with his nagging injuries suggests otherwise.
Kirilenko played like a hobbled, displaced veteran. He contributed as he could for a team that, having found its identity in his absence, didn't quite know what to do with him (19.0 MPG). That version of Kirilenko was fine and useful. When Kirilenko is in better health and incorporated more, though, he's a kinetic force: cutting, slashing, hounding opposing scorers, swooping in with help defense and rebounding outside of his immediate zone. He does so many things well that it's easy to forgive his limitations as a perimeter shooter and off-the-dribble creator. A player who can cover this many gaps on both ends of the floor can strengthen any team. -- R.M.
84Tyreke Evans, PelicansForward | Age: 24
6-6, 220 pounds
Last year: No. 65
• 14.5 PPG, 5.0 APG, 3.7 RPG, 43.6 FG%, 22.1 3P%
• 18.4 PER, 3.1 Win Shares, -2.7 RAPM
Finding the best use for Evans takes a delicate hand. Give him too much control and risk running your offense aground with bullheaded driving. Push him into a role without much creative opportunity and risk denying his potential.
READ MOREEvans' usage requires a specific plan and the right blend of teammates, and even then there is no clear consensus as to what either of those factors entails. That said, Evans has put up some outstanding numbers in his five seasons, including averages of 18.5 points, 6.4 assists and 6.1 rebounds per 36 minutes in his first year with New Orleans. If the Pelicans can fully unlock his game, they will have a prodigious talent on their hands. -- R.M.
83Trevor Ariza, RocketsForward | Age: 29
6-8, 220 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 14.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 45.6 FG%, 40.7 3P%
• 15.9 PER, 8.0 Win Shares, 0.4 RAPM
Though Ariza put together the most complete season of his 10-year career, the cap-conscious Wizards concluded that he was their most expendable starter. That decision -- which shouldn’t be read as a slight to Ariza, given the importance of Washington's other core players -- led the small forward to sign a four-year, $32 million contract with the Rockets.
When Ariza arrived for his first stint with Houston in 2009, he had attempted 234 three-pointers in the previous five years and had never shot better than 33.3 percent. This time around, Ariza is coming off a career-best year from deep, hitting 40.7 percent of his 442 attempts (15th most in the NBA). That steep growth in his outside shooting, along with better health, made him an ideal three-and-D wing last season. The Rockets will ask him to play the same role as a replacement for Chandler Parsons. Ariza’s playoff experience, two-way contributions and ability to serve as an auxiliary threat without needing touches should make him an immediate asset in Houston. -- B.G.
82Robin Lopez, BlazersCenter | Age: 26
7-0, 255 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 11.1 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 53.1 FG%
• 17.7 PER, 9.5 Win Shares, 1.5 RAPM
Lopez answered a number of critics’ questions in his first season with the Blazers.
Could he be a full-time starting center on a playoff team? (Yes, he averaged more than 30 minutes for the first time in his six-year career and Portland won 54 games.) Could he play passable defense despite his lack of mobility? (Yes, he proved to be a massive upgrade over J.J. Hickson and a good complement to LaMarcus Aldridge, even if Lopez isn’t the most athletic rim protector.) Could he avoid being his team's postseason Achilles heel in a conference that includes the likes of Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan? (Yes, Lopez was overpowered by Howard, but he filled his supporting role well enough that Portland defeated Houston to win a playoff series for the first time in 14 years.) And, most importantly, could he stay healthy under the strain of big minutes? (Yes, Lopez played all 82 games for the second straight season, a crucial achievement considering Portland’s lack of interior depth.) Now, Lopez has to do it all again to ensure that he makes the most of his free agency next July. -- B.G.
81Arron Afflalo, NuggetsGuard | Age: 28
6-5, 215 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 18.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.4 APG, 45.9 FG%, 42.7 3P%
• 16.1 PER, 5.3 Win Shares, -2.5 RAPM
Afflalo was coming off a career year when the Nuggets traded him to the Magic in the Dwight Howard deal two years ago. Rather than serving as a key complementary piece on a perennial playoff team in Denver, Afflalo suddenly was one of the few proven veterans on a rebuilding squad in Orlando.
Two last-place seasons and countless trade rumors later, Afflalo is back with the Nuggets and looking to make up for lost time.
Afflalo may have flirted with an All-Star appearance last season thanks to a torrid shooting start, but he would seem to be a better fit as one of many capable players on a balanced Nuggets roster. Afflalo’s experience and steady three-and-D profile will please Brian Shaw, who was grasping for answers as a rookie coach during Denver’s rocky, injury-marred 2013-14 season. -- B.G.
80Jonas Valanciunas, RaptorsCenter | Age: 22
6-11, 231 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 11.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 0.9 BPG, 53.1 FG%
• 16.1 PER, 6.7 Win Shares, -3.0 RAPM
Valanciunas isn’t always mentioned in the discussion of the NBA’s most promising young big men, but the fact that he was a full-time starter for a playoff team last season was unique among his up-and-coming colleagues.
Indeed, the Lithuanian – who ramped up his per-minute production in his second season -- was the only player under 24 to average at least 10 points and eight rebounds for playoff team last season. Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Couins, Greg Monroe, Derrick Favors and others all watched from home as Valanciunas and the Raptors came within one win of the conference semifinals.
The presence of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will place a cap on Valanciunas’ offensive role in the short term, and there’s plenty of room for him to grow as a rim protector and paint presence. Even so, Valanciunas is further ahead of the curve than just about everyone in his age class, and his old-school pump fakes and low-post moves only add to the enjoyment of watching him develop. -- B.G.
79Derrick Favors, JazzForward | Age: 23
6-10, 268 pounds
Last year: No. 87
• 13.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 52.2 FG%
• 19.0 PER, 5.1 Win Shares, -1.6 RAPM
A big, explosive defender still learning the trade. The core attributes are all there for the No. 3 pick in 2010. Favors has the quickness to become a top defensive player, the bounce to swat shots at a high level and the length to contain quicker opponents.
He simply hasn't put it all together yet. There's an elegance to the way elite defensive players guide from one action to the next that Favors hasn't mastered yet, a function of age and experience as much as anything. He’s also a work in progress on the other end, but he finishes well in the pick-and-roll, has grown more comfortable with the ball and is a presence on the offensive glass. Favors likely won’t ever develop into a premier scorer, but even with gradual improvement he could cultivate a powerful two-way influence. -- R.M.
78Larry Sanders, BucksCenter | Age: 25
6-11, 235 pounds
Last year: No. 43
•7.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 46.9 FG%
•14.0 PER, 0.7 Win Shares, 0.9 RAPM
Sanders’ 2013-14 season was a travesty. After signing a four-year, $44 million extension, Sanders was caught in the middle when his old agent sued his new agent; feuded with his new coach, Larry Drew; missed six weeks after injuring his thumb in a nightclub flight; beefed with former teammate Gary Neal, who questioned his professionalism; was cited twice for mistreatment of his dogs; was ejected for throwing a flagrant elbow at Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams; missed nearly two months after fracturing his eye socket from an errant elbow; drew a five-game drug suspension; and publicly advocated for the medical benefits of marijuana while suspended for smoking marijuana.
Despite all of his missteps, which came after he pledged to be a team leader, Sanders’ elite shot-blocking ability and Defensive Player of the Year-caliber impact make him impossible to write off yet. He’s still only 25 and has shown -- if only for one season, in 2012-13 -- that he can be a game-changing back-line anchor for a playoff team. If Sanders can get back on track, it would go a long toward fixing the Bucks, who ranked No. 29 in defensive efficiency last season and finished a league-worst 15-67. -- B.G.
77Kenneth Faried, NuggetsForward | Age: 24
6-8, 228 pounds
Last year: No. 75
• 13.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 0.9 BPG, 54.5 FG%
• 19.9 PER, 6.5 Win Shares, -1.3 RAPM
Faried's spirited style belies very real limitations. It's easy to admire what he brings, from tangible stat-stuffing (Faried averaged 18.1 points and 11.3 rebounds per 36 minutes last season) to more abstract injections of energy.
Faried, though, is fundamentally a non-shooting, shaky-defending power forward with narrow creative ability. Creating the conditions to maximize his game isn’t easy.
As a complementary offensive player, Faried needs others to manufacture the bulk of his team's scoring and alert playmakers to enable his cuts. As a four without shooting range or much defensive ability, he all but requires that his frontcourt counterpart be a stretch center with All-Defense credentials. As a player with limited ball skills, he isn't suited to a read-and-react offense that would force him to make quick decisions or passes. It’s also uncertain how well Faried would function on a team that doesn't push the pace -- a matter of some importance given how explosive he is in transition.
Part of the reason Faried thrived in the FIBA World Cup was that Team USA checked all of the aforementioned boxes. Put him on an up-tempo squad alongside Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Kyrie Irving and Faried will self-actualize. Anything less gets complicated. -- R.M.
76Bradley Beal, WizardsGuard | Age: 21
6-5, 207 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 17.1 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.3 APG, 41.9 FG%, 40.2 3P%
• 14.3 PER, 4.0 Win Shares, -2.8 RAPM
It’s time that Beal starts getting included in the discussion of the NBA’s most promising prodigies.
READ MOREThe No. 3 pick in 2012 is making the most of an excellent backcourt pairing with John Wall, using a beautiful and reliable shooting stroke to complement the All-Star point guard’s vicious off-the-dribble game. Beal isn’t merely a “good” shooter: In 2013-14, he joined Mike Miller as the only under-21 players in NBA history to hit at least 40 percent of their threes while attempting more than 300. Even more exciting for Wizards fans? Beal raised his game in the playoffs, joining Magic Johnson as the only under-21 players since 1964 to score 25 or more points in three postseason games.
Beal is still developing as a shot creator, attacker and playmaker. There’s also plenty of room for improvement in efficiency, as he’s not yet a favorite of any of the major advanced stats. Few players this young are, though. Thanks in part to the East’s weak guard crop, Beal could contend for an All-Star berth as early as this year, especially if the Wizards build on their most successful season in nearly a decade. -- B.G.
75Taj Gibson, BullsForward | Age: 29
6-9, 225 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 13.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 47.9 FG%
• 16.1 PER, 5.7 Win Shares, 3.4 RAPM
Gibson is a rock for the Bulls, the stout defensive team he elevates to its best performances.
Joakim Noah won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season, but Gibson -- as corroborated by various plus-minus and on/off metrics -- may be Chicago's best defensive player. He draws less acclaim because he plays fewer minutes, not to mention having a less demonstrative style than his frontcourt teammate. What Noah does for the Bulls is obvious because of the visual pull of his activity. Gibson plays a subtler defensive game, underscored by the fact that he rarely makes a mistake.
Such steady, high-level play positions Gibson as one of the few power forwards capable of defensive captaincy. It's on those grounds that he outranks a more emphatic and productive player in Kenneth Faried. Whereas Faried's limitations complicate his fit on a team level, Gibson fills a role that could benefit most any roster. Sometimes the sensible outweighs the spectacular. -- R.M.
74Kyle Korver, HawksForward | Age: 33
6-7, 212 pounds
Last year: No. 98
• 12.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.9 APG, 47.5 FG%, 47.2 3P%
• 13.6 PER, 5.9 Win Shares, 1.1 RAPM
No player in history has shot better while launching as many threes as Korver did last season (47.2 percent on 392 attempts).
That astonishing combination of efficiency and volume perfectly illustrates Korver’s standing as the NBA’s premier shooting specialist. One might rightly assume that Korver has an easier life than say, Stephen Curry, as the Hawks’ swingman is not responsible for running an offense or creating many of his own shots off the dribble. Make no mistake, though: Korver still works hard for his offense, scurrying tirelessly through screens, dealing with defenders who are committed to denying him clean looks, and commanding star-level attention or more when he is off the ball.
As Atlanta’s season went sideways because of injuries, it became clear that Korver -- a fine, active all-around player -- wasn’t going to make a sudden, late-career leap from quality niche filler to lead option on a solid offense. But his positive impact on both sides of the ball was indisputable: With Korver on the court, Atlanta’s offensive efficiency rose from 100.3 to 105.4 and its defensive efficiency improved from 106.5 to 102.4. -- B.G.
73LANCE STEPHENSON, HORNETSGuard | Age: 24
6-5, 230 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 13.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 4.6 APG, 49.1 FG%, 35.2 3P%
• 14.7 PER, 7.4 Win Shares, 0.0 RAPM
Implicit in these rankings is the degree to which a player can be trusted. That’s how Stephenson, a gutsy, two-way potential star, could be so far down this list.
Stephenson is a burgeoning creator, having stepped into his largest role yet with the Pacers last season. With that responsibility, however, came a fuller view of his shortcomings. He is volatile in both game and disposition; even if the loose-cannon personality type is set aside for a moment, Stephenson’s dribble-heavy style and bursts of flash over substance tend to cause problems.
Stephenson takes even the slightest opening in the defense as an invitation to drive headlong, often losing sight of the help defense and open teammates along the way. It’s no surprise, then, that Stephenson turned the ball over more often than all but four players at his usage level. His wild play also led to a ridiculous turnover rate (22.8 percent) in transition, which is generally a reliable source of hyper-efficient offense.
Last season offered a case study in the implications of Stephenson's play. In only his fourth season, the 2010 second-round pick was a borderline All-Star. He was also front and center in discussions of Indiana's "selfish" style and a key creator for an offense that bottomed out as the season progressed. We can't be too effusive in our praise of a player who played such an active part in an offense that ranked No. 29 after the All-Star break. Stephenson, for all his abilities (including strong, multipositional defense and absurdly productive rebounding), only seemed to perpetuate the Pacers' downward spiral.
Teams were right to be somewhat skeptical of him this summer, when comparable (or even lesser) players received far bigger contracts than Stephenson, whose three-year, $27.4 million deal with Charlotte includes a final-year team option. -- R.M.
72Wesley Matthews, BlazersGuard | Age: 27
6-5, 220 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 16.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.4 APG, 44.1 FG%, 39.3 3P%
• 15.7 PER, 8.2 Win Shares, 1.9 RAPM
Matthews should look back on 2013-14 as the season he finally convinced the NBA world to stop overlooking him.
A four-year college player at Marquette who went undrafted, Matthews has been typecast as an unspectacular, blue-collar grinder for most of his five-year career. A pairing with All-Star point guard Damian Lillard has really helped Matthews maximize his potential: a quality catch-and-shoot player who feasts on the open looks created by Lillard and Terry Stotts’ pass-heavy offense. But viewing Matthews solely as an auxiliary offensive threat is no longer totally accurate. His 16.4 points per game marked a career-high, and he ranked among the league’s most potent outside shooters, as only Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Gerald Green and Lillard attempted more than 500 threes and connected on a better rate than Matthews’ 39.3 percent. A sturdy 6-foot-5, Matthews also found himself in the post more often against smaller defenders, which offered Portland a change-of-pace look and allowed Matthews to expand his game. Even though he doesn’t quite have the athleticism and length to be a truly elite perimeter defender, Matthews’ bulldog mentality was on display during the postseason, as he hounded James Harden into tough shots and turnovers. -- B.G.
71Amir Johnson, RaptorsForward | Age: 27
6-9, 210 pounds
Last year: No. 84
• 10.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 56.2 FG%
• 15.4 PER, 6.3 Win Shares, 4.2 RAPM
Johnson is a darling of most every plus-minus-based evaluation system out there, which is really a way of saying that much of what he offers doesn't translate particularly well to the standard box score.
He understands his role and value, committing to those areas of the game in which he can make the biggest difference. Some of those are subtle, like Johnson's screens that spring teammates. Others are critical but merely underappreciated, like Johnson's expert defense of the pick-and-roll. The bottom line is that Johnson is -- and I say this as a ringing endorsement -- something of a supercharged Nick Collison.
What sets Johnson (and Collison) apart is a spectacular sense of place. He navigates the floor on both ends intelligently. Johnson maximizes his scoring efficiency (he ranked fifth in field goal percentage last season) by lingering in the right spaces, and he helps his team by clearing quickly from areas he might clutter. On defense, his economic movement and notable athleticism allow Johnson to consistently beat his opponents to a spot. He may not be an exceptionally skilled player in the traditional sense, but Johnson gets the most out of every possession by playing smart, controlled basketball. -- R.M.
70Tiago Splitter, SpursCenter | Age: 29
6-11, 245 pounds
Last year: No. 74
• 8.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.5 APG, 52.3 FG%
• 16.6 PER, 4.3 Win Shares, 2.0 RAPM
Players must sacrifice for the Spurs to be greater than the sum of their parts. Splitter, a worthy defensive anchor who played a mere 21.5 minutes a game last season, tends to sacrifice more than most.
The Brazilian big man can only produce so much with that playing time, but over 36 minutes he averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds, while guarding the paint effectively. If the situation called for it, Splitter could also do slightly more on offense at the cost of some efficiency. His post game is stable enough to handle more opportunity on the block. The pick-and-roll could be a more consistent scoring avenue too; with good hands and touch, Splitter scored on 64.1 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions, according Synergy Sports. Between those skills, solid passing ability and underrated work creating second chances on the glass, Splitter has the offensive utility to round out his defensive appeal. -- R.M.
69Thaddeus Young, WolvesForward | Age: 26
6-8, 230 pounds
Last year: No. 62
• 17.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 45.4 FG%, 30.8 3P%
• 16.6 PER, 3.5 Win Shares, 0.2 RAPM
Young is in the right place at the right time so consistently that it should be appreciated as a genuine talent.
He engages in some kind of basketball alchemy, in that he finds golden opportunity in the junkiest of possessions. He's not much of an isolation option or a bail-out shooter. But when Young ends up with the ball at the tail end of the shot clock, just as all hope for a score seems lost, he maneuvers through the defense to toss in the perfect little runner or hook. These plays can’t be scouted or schematically stopped, as Young attacks opponents at a time and angle they least expect. The low-maintenance Young -- who is also an elite cutter and pesky defender -- is one of the rare players who offers clear value without need for touches or tailor-made roles. -- R.M.
68Greg Monroe, PistonsForward | Age: 24
6-11, 250 pounds
Last year: No. 52
• 15.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.1 APG, 49.7 FG%
• 18.1 PER, 5.9 Win Shares, 0.9 RAPM
What’s worse? Entering restricted free agency hoping to be rewarded with a max-type second contract, only to walk away with a $5.5 million qualifying offer, or drawing a two-game suspension for a DUI, only to have national media outlets pick up on the fact that the arrest report mentioned self-urination?
Sadly, that’s a question that Monroe has probably had to contemplate during an offseason that certainly didn’t go according to plan. Monroe’s virtues are clear: the 6-foot-11 big man has missed just three games in four seasons, he has managed to post double-double type numbers in three consecutive seasons despite a rotating coaching carousel and weird positional fits with his teammates, and he is skilled and strong enough to consistently work his way into the basket area for high-percentage looks. His limitations are equally self-evident: he isn’t wired as a rim-protector so he can’t really function as a full-time center, he doesn’t have the range to stretch the floor as a power forward offensively, he isn’t agile enough to handle stretch forwards defensively, and he doesn’t quite finish his high-percentage looks at a truly desirable, high-percentage rate. Put all of that together, and Monroe is a very talented four/five tweener worth pursuing, but not necessarily a franchise guy worth overpaying. After NBA GMs showed an unusual amount of restraint over the offseason, Monroe must now wait until July, when the prospect of unrestricted free agency should help him find the type of offer that never materialized. -- B.G.
67Rudy Gay, KingsForward | Age: 28
6-8, 230 pounds
Last year: No. 64
• 20.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.9 APG, 45.5 FG%, 33.0 3P%
• 18.3 PER, 4.8 Win Shares, 0.3 RAPM
USA Basketball’s FIBA World Cup roster selection process perfectly illustrated Gay’s standing in the NBA: If LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George are all unavailable, there are worse eventualities than settling for the Kings’ talented but polarizing forward.
A smooth, steady-scoring wing who has long been viewed as overpaid and overvalued, Gay’s shot selection and overall shooting efficiency improved after a midseason trade to the Kings last season. He posted a career-high in scoring, but his three-point shooting and rebounding numbers both regressed; the Kings’ offensive efficiency improved noticeably with him on the court, but the team’s defense also took a step back. By picking up a $19.3 million option to remain in Sacramento for 2014-15, Gay put himself in position to further test his fit and find his role. A core group headlined by DeMarcus Cousins and Gay certainly isn’t scaring anyone in the West any time soon, but Sacramento has nevertheless appeared highly motivated to retain Gay, a proven B-lister, given its otherwise talent-deficient, mish-mashed and/or young roster parts. If ever there was a time and place for Gay to be handsomely rewarded for having a career year, this would be it. It remains to be seen whether such a performance – and the long-term money it would invariably command – would be a good thing for Kings fans in the long-term. -- B.G.
66Monta Ellis, MavericksGuard | Age: 28Last year: No. 68
6-3, 185 pounds
• 19.0 PPG, 5.7 APG, 3.6 RPG, 45.1 FG%, 33.0 3P%
• 16.8 PER, 4.9 Win Shares, 1.9 RAPM
Ellis hasn't changed much in the last year, but a chance to play for a first-rate coach alongside a superstar scorer has clarified his optimal role.
We now have empirical evidence that a team with Ellis as a central part can gun for the best offense in the league. Dallas was just that potent last season with Ellis as one of its creative leads, a remarkable turnaround after years of inefficiency with the Bucks and Warriors. Ellis deserves credit for buying in and giving the Mavs the off-the-dribble force needed, in the process generating more points via drives for his team than any player in the league (per SportVU). Some slight discount is in order, though, given that Dallas is so far from ordinary. In another context Ellis' shot selection might still be more of an issue. He also might not have the offensive success overall to make up for his loose defensive coverage -- a problem in Dallas forgiven for all else that Ellis provided. -- R.M.
65Andrew Bogut, WarriorsCenter | Age: 29
7-0, 260 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 7.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 62.7 FG%
• 17.1 PER, 6.5 Win Shares, 0.5 RAPM
Steve Kerr has plenty to mull over as he begins his coaching career, but one of his top concerns must be constructing a plan that maximizes the likelihood that the perpetually injured Bogut is on the court come playoff time.
Regarded for years as one of the NBA’s best paint-protecting centers when healthy, Bogut helped Golden State post the West’s No. 1 ranked defense last season, and the team’s efficiency splits were absolutely fantastic when he was on the court (107.8 on offense, 98.8 on defense). Without Bogut, though, the Warriors slipped from overpowering to pretty good (103.3 on offense, 100.8 on defense), losing to the L.A. Clippers in seven games as their Aussie center missed the entire first-round playoff series with a scary rib injury. Given the three-year, $36 million extension Bogut signed last fall and the no-name assortment of bigs on the depth chart behind him, Golden State is fully committed to and totally dependent upon their 7-footer, a troubling scenario given that he’s appeared in only 111 games over the last three seasons combined. Should Kerr further reduce Bogut’s regular-season minutes (26.4 MPG last season)? Should he rest Bogut on back-to-backs? Should he rely more heavily on small ball? Whatever the conclusion, Bogut needs to be there when it matters if Golden State wants to vault up out of the West’s second tier. -- B.G.
64Omer Asik, PelicansCenter | Age: 28
7-0, 255 pounds
Last year: No. 69
• 5.8 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 0.8 BPG, 53.2 FG%
• 14.0 PER, 2.4 Win Shares, 1.8 RAPM
Blessed with a young power forward in Anthony Davis who can just about do it all, New Orleans found itself in need of a center that could provide a little protection for its franchise player while also holding down the middle on defense.
Asik should fit those bills nicely, even though his 2013-14 season was mostly spent grumpily watching from the sidelines (20.2 MPG) as Dwight Howard stole his starting job in Houston. It wasn’t so long ago that Asik averaged a double-double and played all 82 games for the Rockets in 2012-13, and his length should make for an excellent rim-protecting pairing with the comically long Davis. Expecting significant offensive contributions from Asik would be a mistake – and misguided, considering the Pelicans’ many other scoring weapons -- but the Turkish 7-footer can get it done as a scrounger, with 93 percent of his field goal attempts coming in the basket area last season. He will be looking to make the most of his opportunity with the Pelicans and should improve its No. 25 ranking on defense. -- B.G.
63Nene, WizardsForward | Age: 31
6-11, 250 pounds
Last year: No. 58
• 14.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 50.3 FG%
• 16.6 PER, 3.2 Win Shares, 1.1 RAPM
Nene has missed at least 18 games in seven of 12 seasons, but he’s a terrific, well-balanced player when healthy.
Consider his role on the Wizards: Nene overpowers opponents in the post, competes on the glass (while not an especially productive rebounder, Washington rebounded at a better rate with Nene on the floor, according to NBA.com) and makes cuts without prompting. He sets knockout screens, draws from great ball skills for a big man and finds open teammates while on the move. A quality mid-range game also allows Nene to float between inside and out in perfect complement of the lineup around him. Nene has the breadth of skill and talent to be whatever his team needs from one moment to the next. -- R.M.
62Danilo Gallinari, NuggetsForward | Age: 26
6-10, 225 pounds
Last year: No. 45
2012-13 statistics (Did not play last season)
• 16.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 41.8 FG%, 37.3 3P%
• 16.7 PER, 7.2 Win Shares, 3.8 RAPM
The last time Gallinari stepped foot on an NBA court, Denver had a different GM, a different coach and real expectations (remember the old “Can a star-less team win a title?” debate they sparked).
This year, the Nuggets are likely to be written off after falling back into the lottery in Gallinari’s absence, even though a number of his former teammates -- Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Arron Afflalo, Wilson Chandler, and Timofey Mozgov – remain in the fold. Do those conditions set the table for the 6-foot-10 Italian forward to surprise some people and reclaim his standing as one of the best wings in the West? Time flies, but Gallinari was one of only eight small forwards in the league to average 16 points, five rebounds, and two assists per game in 2012-13. Plus, Gallinari hadn’t totally broken out yet: his shooting percentages were never as pretty as his shooting motion, his defensive work was more than passable but not yet elite, and he wasn’t really a back-breaking scorer even though he and Lawson were clearly Denver’s lead options. At 26 and still on the upswing, Gallinari should be able to take his game to new heights once he returns to form and finds his footing under new coach Brian Shaw. -- B.G.
61DeMar DeRozan, RaptorsForward | Age: 25
6-7, 216 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 22.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.0 APG, 42.9 FG%, 30.5 3P%
• 18.4 PER, 8.8 Win Shares, -0.1 RAPM
In his most demanding role yet, DeRozan swelled to surpass expectations. His All-Star season was a product of incremental gains in most every phase of the game.
DeRozan wasn’t just more prolific but also sharper in his execution on both ends. Never before had DeRozan played so confidently off the dribble (leading to a huge leap in free-throw rate), worked so patiently in posting up smaller guards or seen the floor so clearly. All of those improvements were put to good, relatively efficient use, making DeRozan a trustworthy option through which to funnel possessions. The rub, to the extent that it can be called such, is that DeRozan is sub-elite in even his strongest suits. He's a fine scorer and decent defender who falls short of superstar standards. -- R.M.
60DAVID LEE, warriorsForward | Age: 31
6-9, 240 pounds
Last year: No. 46
• 18.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.1 APG, 52.3 FG%
• 19.2 PER, 7.6 Win Shares, 0.2 RAPM
Lee is a player most often framed by his weaknesses, but let’s consider all that he offers. He's been a steady source of offense for years, having averaged 18.7 points on 52 percent shooting over his last five seasons.
Lee also reaches that mark without demanding the ball as few players are so consistently productive off cuts and duck-ins, angles that he works constantly. That activity can go a long way for teams that drift into stagnation.
The two-time All-Star is also a quality post-up option for moderate usage and a flexible target on the pick-and-roll. After making his catch on the move, Lee has all kinds of options: ambidexterity that allows him to go both directions, the footwork to maneuver around defenders, a safe enough handle to put the ball on the floor and the vision to spot a cutter or shooter. His lack of shooting range and nonexistent defense put the Warriors in a tough spot at times, but overall Lee is a quality contributor who keeps his team's options open during a possession. -- R.M.
59Ryan Anderson, PelicansForward | Age: 26
6-10, 240 pounds
Last year: No. 57
• 19.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 43.8 FG%, 40.9 3P%
• 18.9 PER, 2.3 Win Shares, 0.4 RAPM
Fortunately, Anderson seems to have recovered well and has been cleared for contact after sustaining a horrifying neck injury that ended his season in January.
Assuming all goes according to plan as he works himself back into playing shape, Anderson should be a compelling contributor again for New Orleans. Since the three-point line was introduced in 1979, only 20 players have averaged more than seven long-range attempts per game. Only three of those players (Stephen Curry, Ray Allen and Dennis Scott) outshot Anderson by percentage in his abbreviated season with the Pelicans. That kind of range is special for a power forward and catalyzing to an offense. By pulling opposing big men out of the paint and drilling jumpers, Anderson creates the space that leads to high efficiency. -- R.M.
58Marcin Gortat, WizardsCenter | Age: 30
6-11, 240 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 13.2 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 54.2 FG%
• 17.6 PER, 8.1 Win Shares, 2.9 RAPM
Washington’s 2013 trade for Gortat set up the possibility of some major second-guessing.
After all, the Wizards had missed the playoffs for five straight seasons and were attempting to fill a major roster (and part with a highly-coveted first-round pick) for a good but not great veteran who was in the final year of his contract. Instead of backfiring, that trade played out about as well as the Wizards could have imagined. Gortat – a traditional, take-no-prisoners bruiser -- put up solid numbers across the board including a team-best +4.8 net rating. He helped Washington post a top-10 defense and was a key reason the Wizards reached the conference semifinals for just the second time since 1979. After playing like one of the best centers in the league last season, Gortat was paid like one this summer, returning on a five-year, $60 million deal. As a postscript, the first-round pick the Wizards sent to the Suns for Gortat wound up being used to select Tyler Ennis at No. 18. Phoenix therefore turned its 2013-2014 starting center into the fourth-best point guard (behind Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas) on its projected 2014-15 roster. That sound you hear is Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld patting himself on the back. -- B.G.
57Gordon Hayward, JazzForward | Age: 24
6-8, 220 pounds
Last year: No. 67
• 16.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 5.2 APG, 41.3 FG%, 30.4 3P%
• 16.2 PER, 3.6 Win Shares, 0.5 RAPM
Hayward's 2013-14 season was a headlong sprint into the high-usage learning curve. In the previous three seasons, he had been an accessory to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
With the exit of both players, however, Hayward was thrown into the fire to create for himself and his teammates more than ever before. That kind of experience is healthy, and Hayward was able to build up his reps in the pick-and-roll and isolation. It also made abundantly clear -- through plummeting efficiency, among other indicators -- that Hayward was miscast as a team's first option.
Hayward isn't the type to steer an offense or pile up shot attempts. When given the chance to work alongside even decent NBA talent, though, he's shown the ability to be a dynamite supporting part. Hayward flanked Jefferson and Millsap as a knockdown spot-up shooter. He worked his way into openings off weak-side screens, from which he's capable of attacking the defense off the dribble. He melds the reserved sensibilities of a role player with the skill set of a supporting star. That's an intriguing combination for a player still in development, particularly one with a game suited for any playing style. -- R.M.
56Chandler Parsons, MavericksForward | Age: 25
6-9, 227 pounds
Last year: No. 942013-14 statistics
• 16.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, 47.2 FG%, 37 3P%
• 15.9 PER, 7.6 Win Shares, 0.4 RAPM
By prying Parsons away from the Rockets, the Mavericks landed one of the league’s very best complementary players. Make no mistake: all “No. 3 guys” are not created equal.
Parsons stands as a desirable addition, even at that inflated price, because he brings so many different positive attributes to the table: he has logged heavy, heavy minutes in each of the last two seasons; he is a proven high-volume, solid-efficiency three-point shooter; he can create for himself and others in spot situations; he has ideal size for a wing defender and plays with discipline on that end; and he fills up all aspects of a box score through high-energy, selfless and fearless play. To help underscore that last point, Parsons joined LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Gordon Hayward and Michael Carter-Williams as the only players to average at least 16 points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal last season. The 2011 second-round pick, who has spent much of his three-year career ranking among the league’s most underpaid players, should find a solid fit in Dallas, where he will play off Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. Look for Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle to make full use of Parsons’ floor-spacing ability, his comfort in transition, and his knack for creating dunks and lay-ups with his timely off-the-ball cuts. -- B.G.
55Luol Deng, HeatForward | Age: 29
6-9, 220 pounds
Last year: No. 55
• 16.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.9 APG, 43.1 FG%, 30.2 FG%
• 15.2 PER, 4.5 Win Shares, 0.5 RAPM
It was just a few weeks ago that Deng’s biggest concern was how to tackle the unenviable task of filling LeBron James’ mammoth shoes in Miami.
Then, the hapless Hawks flapped their way into Deng’s life, leaking a racist and reputation-damaging background report they had compiled on the 6-foot-9 small forward. But the two-time All-Star and 10-year veteran handled the situation with dignity and grace, opting to stand up for himself without kicking Hawks management while it was on its knees begging for forgiveness. That approach further solidified Deng’s status as a class act – he has won the 2007 Sportsmanship Award and the 2014 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award – and should serve him well as he attempts to turn the page and get acclimated in Miami. His combination of high basketball IQ, competitive spirit, and length makes Deng one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders, and he will likely play huge minutes for Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, just as he famously did for Tom Thibodeau in Chicago. Although his two-year, $20 million contract with the Heat did come with the excruciating and unbearable burden of taking the reins from James, it also gives him the opportunity to play on a veteran-dominated roster once again and for a driven, well-organized franchise that has won three titles since 2006. -- B.G.
54Klay Thompson, WarriorsGuard | Age: 24
6-7, 205 pounds
Last year: No. 892013-14 statistics
• 18.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.2 APG, 44.4 FG%, 41.7 3P%
• 14.3. PER, 6.7 Win Shares, 1.5 RAPM
Thompson emerged as a key player for USA Basketball at the World Cup shortly after he was a central player in rumors concerning a possible trade for Kevin Love.
Even Thompson’s ardent Bay Area backers must have been salivating at the thought of pairing Love with Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut in what sure looked like a championship-contending core. But any regrets about Golden State’s reported reluctance to include Thompson in a deal were at least partially erased in Spain, where the 2011 first-round pick won a gold medal and looked like USA’s best two-way perimeter player along the way.
Thompson’s demonstrated deep commitment to working on the defensive end has raised his ceiling past “lethal three-point shooter.” His size, frame and footwork all lend themselves well to on-ball defense, and he’s made real progress during his three-year career. Of course, the shooting is and always will be his bread-and-butter skill: Thompson joined Stephen Curry as the only two players in the league to shoot at least 41 percent from deep while launching at least 500 attempts last season. -- B.G.
53Josh Smith, PistonsForward | Age: 28
6-9, 225 pounds
Last year: No. 34
• 16.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.4 BPG, 41.9 FG%
• 14.1 PER, 1.1 Win Shares, 2.1 RAPM
Smith's play with the Pistons last season wouldn't warrant a ranking this optimistic, but this exercise doesn't punish him for 1) the size of his contract, 2) the failings of his since-fired coach, or 3) the decision to sign him as a solution at small forward.
More broadly, Smith is still the enticing (and maddening) two-way dynamo we saw during those last years in Atlanta. He's every bit the defensive difference-maker he was then, so long as he's allowed to hang around the paint to best influence shots. It's not as if his finishing ability or sharp passing hasve somehow left him either. What plagues Smith most is circumstance; if cast into a role that constantly tests his worst instincts as a player -- instincts, it must be said, that Smith never had perfect control over in the first place -- all is essentially lost. He can do better, and were he on a team with a more coherent internal structure, he would. -- R.M.
52Roy Hibbert, PacersCenter | Age: 27
7-2, 290 pounds
Last year: No. 23
• 10.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 43.9 FG%
• 13.5 PER, 5.4 Win Shares, 1.5 RAPM
For a lumbering 7-foot-2 behemoth, Hibbert sure made the transition from “darling of the NBA intelligentsia” to “bane of basketball fans everywhere” in record time.
Even acknowledging that his postseason performance was atrocious, the vitriol sent Hibbert’s way was excessive; he is still a very good, very valuable player. The Pacers center made his second All-Star team in 2014, has been one of the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year in each of the last two seasons and was the most important defensive player on the league’s No. 1 defense last year. Although his lack of quickness requires schematic accommodation on both sides of the ball, Hibbert is fundamentally-sound and unafraid when it comes to guarding the paint and protecting the rim, and those skills regularly bear game-changing fruit. It was also easy to miss the fact that Indiana finished with the East’s No. 1 seed and came within two wins of the Finals despite the firestorm that surrounded Hibbert’s struggles. His play wasn’t pretty, to be sure, but it didn’t singlehandedly sabotage his team’s title shot either.
Going forward, the trickiest thing to determine is what exactly happened to him down the stretch. Was it fatigue? Was it mental? Was it locker room politics? How is it possible for an All-Star to post zero points and zero rebounds twice in the playoffs? How is it possible that Hibbert went scoreless on six separate occasions in April and May? Why did Hibbert struggle to shoot a career-low 43.9 percent – one of the all-time worst shooting percentages for any player 7-foot-2 or taller? Right now, it’s unclear whether the answers to those questions will ever be known or if the 2014 playoffs will prove to be a blip on his career’s radar. What is clear: Hibbert is being set up for a tough 2014-15 season without Paul George and Lance Stephenson around. -- B.G.
51Joe Johnson, NetsGuard | Age: 33
6-7, 240 pounds
Last year: No. 59
• 15.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 45.4 FG%, 40.1 3P%
• 15.5 PER, 4.9 Win Shares, +2.5 RAPM
Johnson is a man for all seasons. He shoots effectively from most zones on the floor and can fill most every function, from bullying guards inside to spotting up on the perimeter.
He has uncommon size and strength for his position, which is now loaded with undersized combo guards and three-point specialists. Better yet, Johnson understands how to make use of every physical advantage to bump and push and create just enough space for his silky jumper. Savvy comes naturally for Johnson, and it's allowed him to float seamlessly between hunting shots and supporting his teammates depending on what’s needed. That worked out well for Brooklyn last season, but Johnson's game would travel well to any other city and circumstance. -- R.M.
50Guard | Age: 24
6-4, 205 pounds
Last year: No. 48
• 14.3 PPG, 7.9 APG, 4.2 RPG, 44.7 FG%, 39.0 3P%
• Advanced: 17.2 PER, 1.5 Win Shares, +0.6 RAPM
At 6-4 with a 6-7 wingspan, Holiday is both taller and longer than your average point guard. He uses those advantages to give opponents hell.
A wide reach makes every effort to close out to an opponent's shot or control his live dribble easier, enabling Holiday to play a suppressive brand of defense. Stylistically speaking, Holiday doesn't attack opposing guards with his defense so much as blanket them; everything from scoring over, driving around and passing away from Holiday becomes a legitimate challenge, introducing doubt into the usual automation of read and react. Such skills and size translate well to defense of either guard spot, a flexibility mirrored in Holiday's offensive game.
Holiday is a dependable, if unspectacular, playmaker. In his injury-abbreviated season with the Pelicans, Holiday set career highs in assists per 36 minutes (8.4) and assist percentage (38.9) for the second year in a row. He's a more slippery scoring threat than he's given credit for and a nice mid- and long-range shooter.
For the first three years of his career, Holiday grew into his game alongside a pass-first swingman in Andre Iguodala. That partnership both eased Holiday's learning curve and empowered him to work off the ball in a way that many point guards can't. Having a true, steady jumper helps: Holiday made 46.7 of his spot-up three-pointers last season and 48.1 percent the year before, according to Synergy Sports. Moreover, Holiday floats between roles as an active creator and passive shooter organically. There's virtue in a player who can so comfortably pick his spots. -- R.M.
49Pau Gasol, BullsForward | Age: 34
7-0, 250 pounds
Last year: No. 36
• 17.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.5 BPG, 48.0 FG%
• 19.3 PER, 3.0 Win Shares, 0.0 RAPM
Two things regarding Gasol have been made clear in the last year.
First: he will not kill himself, or even much trouble himself, to do the dirty work for a team he doesn't feel deserves it. Gasol's last NBA season, with the last-place Lakers, was underlined by half-hearted defensive effort, which wasn't a good look for an aging big man with waning mobility. The second: When Gasol is committed, as he was for Spain at the FIBA World Cup and as he should be for Chicago, he remains one of the most cerebral and effective post players in the league. After all these years, Gasol is still a standout in both post-up effectiveness and variety.
Gasol has also experienced surprisingly little decline in his pick-and-roll game, offering another avenue for teams to get the ball in his hands. Good things tend to happen when possessions flow through him. Whether operating from the high post or making a catch on the move, Gasol sees the full floor and picks out open teammates with on-target passes. That he's such a willing distributor and a high-functioning scorer makes Gasol a drain on an entire defense. Gasol may no longer be able to serve as a team's first option, but precious few bigs share in his knack for facilitation. He makes other talented players better, provided that he's on a team contending for something other than nightly consolation. -- R.M.
48Nikola Pekovic, WolvesCenter | Age: 28
6-11, 285 pounds
Last year: No. 50
• 17.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 54.1 FG%
• 20.1 PER, 5.9 Win Shares, +1.3 RAPM
Minnesota got almost exactly what it paid for from Pekovic last season. The center's numbers were nearly identical to those he posted during a breakout 2012-13 season that netted him a five-year, $60 million contract. Those stats reflect some real strengths.
Pekovic was one of only 14 players to average 17 points and eight rebounds and he ranked seventh among centers in PER. The wide-shouldered, beefy bruiser finished in the top 10 in rebounding percentage for the third straight year. He also attempted 86 percent of his shots in the basket area and earned more than five trips to the foul line per game.
Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, Pekovic’s limitations -- a fairly one-dimensional offensive game and a lack of rim protection -- also remained unchanged. In fact, his ground-bound defense hit a new low, as he recorded just 23 blocks (6-1 point guards Raymond Felton and Kemba Walker somehow registered more). Of even greater concern was a continuation of Pekovic’s injury issues: He missed 28 games with bursitis in his right ankle. After Kevin Love's departure, Pekovic -- who has missed 27 percent of Minnesota’s games during his four-year career -- needs to prove that he can stay on the court long enough to handle the burden of being a foundational piece for the new-look Wolves. -- B.G.
47David West, PacersForward | Age: 34
6-9, 240 pounds
Last year: No. 31
• 14.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 2.8 APG, 48.8 FG%
• 17.6 PER, 8.1 Win Shares, 1.2 RAPM
Please forgive West if he feels like the rug was yanked out from underneath him this offseason.
What do you mean Paul George is out for the year? What do you mean Lance Stephenson walked for nothing? What do you mean Roy Hibbert may or may not rebound from a puzzling decline? What do you mean the big offseason additions were C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey? What do you mean everything fell apart for the Pacers at the same time the Heat’s Big Three finally separated?
None of this is what West had in mind when he re-signed with the Pacers for three years and $36 million in 2013, but the steady 11-year vet has been around the NBA block long enough to know that it’s his job to roll with the punches. If Indiana’s offense is to operate at anything above a disastrous level this season, it will be because West, a two-time All-Star power forward who can effectively score from both the block and the elbow, steps up as the No. 1 option. That’s asking a lot for a 34-year-old, but there just aren’t any better alternatives.
Pacers fans dreading life without George should take heart in West’s tenacity and pride, plus the fact that his pairing with Hibbert will give coach Frank Vogel’s interior defense some valuable continuity. Whether Indiana winds up falling apart or hanging tough, West will almost definitely be the best thing it has going. -- B.G.
46Paul Pierce, WizardsForward | Age: 36
6-7, 235 pounds
Last year: No. 32
• 13.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.4 APG, 45.1 FG%
• 16.8 PER, 5.2 Win Shares, 2.6 RAPM
As last season progressed, the Nets grew weirder and far more effective. Pierce was a big reason why.
As challenging a cover as he's been at the three, the current version of Pierce -- older and less explosive -- is particularly tough when matched up at power forward. At that position his first step is best leveraged against unsuspecting foes, with every fake and juke that follows even more productive than usual.
Pierce also took to his new defensive responsibilities as if he had juggled them for years. To the extent that Pierce has drawn praise for his defense in the past, it has generally been because of lockdown work against star wing players. Pierce's latest efforts, however, highlighted his value as a team defender at either forward spot. That enabled the Nets to go small without defensive concession -- a strategic move that bucks conventional tradeoff.
Pierce has his limits (he averaged just 28 minutes), and continual use against post-pounding bigs is likely to wear him down over a season. Yet it's through the new Wizard's shot creation, off-ball facilitation and broad defensive ability that his team can consider new lineup possibilities. -- R.M.
45Deron Williams, NetsGuard | Age: 30
6-3, 210 pounds
Last year: No. 24
• 14.3 PPG, 6.1 APG, 2.6 RPG, 45 FG%, 36.6 3P%
• 17.7 PER, 5.4 Win Shares, 2.0 RAPM
Deron Williams will likely never be Deron Williams again. That player -- the one who led the Jazz to the 2007 Western Conference finals and until recently was regarded as a superstar -- has been undercut by ankle injuries. What Williams can be, though, is a perfectly effective point guard.
Don't mistake his depressed output for a lack of influence. The Nets scored a whopping 8.3 more points per 100 possessions last season with Williams than without, according to NBA.com, despite the presence of an able backup (Shaun Livingston) and strong supporting creators (Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson). At this point, however, Williams' value is very much dependent on his physical state. (He missed 18 games in 2013-14 and had surgery on both ankles in May.) When ailing he tends to drive very little, instead leaning heavily on long jumpers off the dribble that have become the root of his inconsistency.
Williams is not an every-possession (or even every-night) performer. He's liable to turn in a single-digit scoring performances even when his team needs more. That's a problem and a demerit for these rankings. It just doesn't erase Williams' wealth of ability or all the good he offered the Nets despite his health woes. -- R.M.
44Ty Lawson, NuggetsGuard | Age: 26
5-11, 195 pounds
Last year: No. 42
• 17.6 PPG, 8.8 APG, 3.5 RPG, 43.1 FG%, 35.6 3P%
• 19 PER, 6.3 Win Shares, 1.6 RAPM
At a position overflowing with talent, Lawson joins Kyle Lowry as the top point guards to never have garnered any formal recognition.
The 2009 first-round pick has not earned All-Star, All-NBA, All-Defensive or even All-Rookie honors, even though he has been the dependable engine that has powered the Nuggets’ attack for three straight years. Despite an abrupt coaching change, the absence of multiple key teammates and his own injury issues, Lawson still was one of only four players -- along with All-Stars Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and John Wall -- to average 17 points and eight assists last season. He also ranked No. 10 among point guards in PER.
Blessed with elite acceleration and a strong handle, Lawson is one of the fastest end-to-end players in the league and he’s incredibly tough to keep out of the paint. On the other end, it would probably take an unprecedented mid-career growth spurt to transform Lawson into a plus defender, but that hardly makes him unique among his positional peers. There really isn’t all that much separating Lawson from players such as Mike Conley (No. 32) and Goran Dragic (No. 35), two off-the-radar point guards who have gotten some award-ballot love in recent years. It would be a mistake to assume that Denver’s speedster will continue to be overlooked as he pushes into his prime. -- B.G.
43Nicolas Batum, BlazersForward | Age: 25
6-8, 200 pounds
Last year: No. 51
• 13.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 5.1 APG, 46.5 FG%, 36.1 3P%
• 15.9 PER, 7.9 Win Shares, 0.2 RAPM
The graceful small forward got a little nastier in 2013-14, with his 7.5 rebounding average representing a major improvement over his previous glasswork
Batum's rebounding numbers spiked as he compensated for power forward LaMarcus Aldridge's late-season absence, but this was also a case of the long-armed wing seeking out new ways to contribute, something he has done throughout his six-year career.
Batum is a jack-of-all-trades who seems ideally suited for his complementary role. He is equally capable of hitting catch-and-shoot jumpers, initiating pick-and-roll action, defending all three perimeter positions and executing chase-down blocks in transition. His toolbox was on display during the FIBA World Cup, where Batum made the all-tournament team and led France to a bronze medal. That latter accomplishment deserves praise not only because Tony Parker and Joakim Noah didn't suit up for France but also because Batum was coming off a season in which he played all 82 games and ranked sixth in minutes. Batum has put himself in the conversation for "second-best small forward in the West" behind Kevin Durant. -- B.G.
42Zach Randolph, GrizzliesForward | Age: 33
6-9, 253 pounds
Last year: No. 35
• 17.4 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 46.6 FG%
• 18.4 PER, 6.4 Win Shares, 1.1 RAPM
Being undersized and lacking leaping ability hardly deter Randolph from scoring inside consistently. The two-time All-Star powers his way up and through defenders to find some slither of an open angle. His plodding, ground-bound game is largely reliant on manufacturing contested shots from within the teeth of the defense. This is who he is and what he does, and provided that his team understands that, he'll go to work in generating offense and cleaning the glass as often as possible.
Randolph is productive despite rarely operating in the pick-and-roll. Such plays accounted for a mere four percent of his offensive usage last season, according to Synergy Sports, an unusually low number in a league of increasing pick-and-roll prevalence. That stat provides a small bit of proof that Randolph has sustained success on his own terms. He's gotten better over 13 seasons, particularly as a team defender. For the most part, though, Randolph has gone about business as usual, progressing in skill but never compromising his post-heavy style much. Bless him for it. The NBA is a better place with Randolph's bully game offering flavor. -- R.M.
41Manu Ginobili, SpursGuard | Age: 37
6-6, 210 pounds
Last year: No. 56
• 12.3 PPG, 4.3 APG, 3 RPG, 46.9 FG%, 34.9 3P%
• 20.1 PER, 5.7 Win Shares, 4.7 RAPM
As one of many talented reserves on San Antonio's ridiculously deep bench, Ginobili logged just 1,550 minutes last season (seventh most on the team and an average of 22.8 per game). It'd be an understatement to say he made the most of his time on the court.
The future Hall of Famer and four-time champion finished third among shooting guards in PER and aced the impact stats, posting a team-high 12.9 net rating (112.4 offense, 99.5 defense) in the regular season, an astronomical 17.3 net rating (116.9 offense, 99.5 defense) in the playoffs and a 4.7 real plus-minus (sixth in the league).
It's not just that Ginobili constantly pressures defenses off the dribble. After all these years, he's still delivering in big postseason moments, too. The Spurs' title team had too many heroes to count, but don't lose Ginobili's handiwork in the confetti haze, including his 20 points and six steals in a decisive Game 7 victory over Dallas in the first round, his 19 points and six assists in a pivotal Game 5 win over Oklahoma City in the conference finals and his 16 points and 11 assists in a Game 1 triumph over Miami in the Finals. His playoff run included too many huge three-pointers and nifty layups to count, and it completed a stellar bounce-back season for Ginobili, who hadn't looked quite right in 2012-13. -- B.G.
40Rajon Rondo, CelticsGuard | Age: 28
6-1, 171 pounds
Last year: No. 26
• 11.7 PPG, 9.8 APG, 5.5 RPG, 40.3 FG%, 28.9 3P%
• 15.3 PER, 1.1 Win Shares, -0.2 RAPM
We know how good Rondo can be. He's dominated playoff series. He led the NBA in assists in back-to-back seasons. He's sly. He's athletic. He makes jaw-dropping plays through magnetic creativity. Fans revere this Rondo. The complete Rondo, however, can't be contained so neatly in a highlight reel, not when he drifts, mails in games and comes with a mess of baggage. Both extremes, and the complicating factors between them, play a part in his ranking, which is lower than his talent might warrant.
Rondo is one of the most difficult players in the league to value, much less place on an actual, optimal roster. The most basic criticism is that he isn't a shooter; he's made 25.2 percent from three-point range in his eight-year career. This matters and hinders what his team can accomplish with him on the floor. It's also harmful that Rondo regularly ignores the right play for a flashy pass. No point guard hunts assists so overtly, as Rondo will shrug off open layups to find a teammate for a worse shot. Bad judgment diminishes the value of his all-world court vision. Folded into this is Rondo's aversion to shooting, a tendency that allows the defense to ease off him in coverage and apply pressure elsewhere.
To make matters worse, Rondo's defensive contributions are hugely overblown based on a dated reputation. Rondo made a name for himself in the NBA by locking down ball handlers and racking up steals, two of the more demonstrative forms of perimeter defense. Since then, however, Rondo has jogged and gambled his way through defensive possessions far too frequently. If this were only a problem within the context of last season's hopeless Celtics, Rondo might have some excuse. But he hasn't been a high-level defender for years, both in terms of applying honest ball pressure and supplying his teammates with good, timely help. Not since the 2009-10 season have the Celtics played better defense (as measured by points allowed per possession) with Rondo on the floor, according to NBA.com. That is not some statistical illusion, but a trend confirmed by more refined plus-minus data, video tracking services like Synergy Sports and even a casual view of Celtics game tape.
To add one more complicating layer to all of this, Rondo has established himself as the kind of personality that makes running a team difficult. The exact characterization changes with every report, but at most generous we could call Rondo a bit of an eccentric. More generally we might say that he's moody or uncooperative, neither of which serves Rondo well in a broad evaluation such as this. -- R.M.
39Tyson Chandler, MavericksCenter | Age: 31
7-1, 235 pounds
Last year: No. 27
• 8.7 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 59.3 FG%
• 16.5 PER, 4.9 Win Shares, 1.3 RAPM
I didn't blame Chandler much for playing with an uncharacteristic level of disengagement at times last season. By the time he returned in mid-December after missing 20 games with a broken leg, the Knicks were already in the midst of a downward spiral.
Chandler's job of covering for the defensive lapses of Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, Andrea Bargnani and Tim Hardaway Jr. in a switch-heavy system would be challenging under any conditions but particularly so on a team that was no longer responding to its coach.
With his return to a more stable situation in Dallas, however, Chandler seems due for a return to form. Maybe he'll never play at peak levels again, as would be a reasonable assumption for a 31-year-old, injury-plagued center reliant on athleticism. But Chandler has better play in him than what he showed last season, if only because another working environment might be more conducive to giving a damn. With that bare minimum of organizational direction in years past, Chandler proved to be an outstanding player -- the second best on the Mavericks' 2011 title team and the Defensive Player of the Year the next season for a playoff club in New York.
When healthy (which can't be assumed but shouldn't be ruled out yet) and engaged, Chandler can lead a defense with his mobility, vertical explosion and energy. The 2013 All-Star can also catalyze an offense. He's only a minimal scorer, but his rolls to the rim have a transformative impact on a team's spacing and his potential as a lob target challenges the speed of an opponent's rotations. With that kind of low-usage influence complementing first-rate defensive play, Chandler could serve as the potential backbone for an elite team. -- R.M.
38DeAndre Jordan, ClippersCenter | Age: 26
6-11, 250 pounds
Last year: Unranked
• 10.4 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 2.5 BPG, 67.6 FG%
• 18.2 PER, 11.1 Win Shares, 2.2 RAPM
In his first season as Clippers coach, Doc Rivers made Jordan's development a top priority. That mission was accomplished, as Jordan posted career highs in minutes, points, rebounds (a league-leading 13.6), blocks, field goal percentage (a league-leading 67.6), PER and Win Shares.
Jordan got knocked as unreliable because of his 42.8 percent free-throw shooting, but otherwise he's about as dependable as centers come: He appeared in every game for the third consecutive season, he rated among the league's most productive rebounders on both ends, he took 97.7 percent of his shots in the basket area and he did well to avoid turnovers.
Over the last three seasons, with Jordan taking on greater responsibility, the Clippers' defense has improved from 18th to ninth to seventh, a major driver in Los Angeles' back-to-back division titles. Jordan finished third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, and his athleticism makes him an elite rim protector who can alter shots and deter movement simply with his presence. Having shed the "project" label, Jordan will be one of the biggest names on next summer's free-agent market. -- B.G.
37Andre Drummond, PistonsCenter | Age: 21
6-10, 270 pounds
Last year: No. 63
• 13.5 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 62.3 FG%
• 22.7 PER, 9.9 Win Shares, -0.4 RAPM
Stan Van Gundy surprised a lot of people when he agreed to take over the sad-sack Pistons. Why would a coach who was accustomed to winning consistently in Orlando subject himself to Detroit's dysfunction? The obvious explanation: Van Gundy was granted authority over basketball decisions. But don't overlook the presence of Drummond, who has the potential to blossom into a superstar.
Drummond last season joined Shaquille O'Neal as the only under-21 players to average 13 points and 13 rebounds in NBA history. What's more, Drummond led the league in rebounding percentage and offensive-rebounding percentage, and placed in the top 10 in field-goal percentage, blocks and offensive rating. Consider this: A 20-year-old Dwight Howard averaged 15.8 points and 12.5 rebounds in 2005-06; just three years later, he led the Magic to the 2009 Finals while averaging 20.6/13.8. Even if a young Howard had Drummond beat on quickness and leaping ability, Detroit should be salivating over the steep ramp-up in store for a player who is this productive this early.
Van Gundy's challenge will be to polish Drummond's game by helping him expand his offensive repertoire, improve his defensive positioning, cut down on unnecessary fouls and boost his 41.8 percent free-throw shooting. Smoothing those edges will require patience, but Van Gundy is smart enough to realize what he already has in Drummond: a traditional big man with a rare combination of size and strength. -- B.G.
36Brook Lopez, NetsCenter | Age: 26
7-0, 260 pounds
Last year: No. 30
• 20.7 PPG, 6 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 56.3 FG%
• 25.5 PER, 2.3 Win Shares, 1.1 RAPM
If not for durability concerns -- Lopez broke his right foot twice in the last three seasons -- he would be ranked higher as the rare center who can carry an offense.
Brooklyn scored at a top-10 rate in 2012-13 with Lopez as its definitive leader in usage. That first-option role coincided with his most efficient season from the field (52.1 percent) since his rookie year and impressive production in the regular season and playoffs. Lopez followed that effort with absurd efficiency from the post before his latest foot injury ended his '13-14 season after only 17 games. He has had three surgeries since: two to repair damage in his foot and another to address a tendon in his ankle.
Lopez says he was cleared to play in late July. If he picks up where he left off, he would not only be a vaunted offensive player but also a burgeoning defender who shows a better understanding of how to use space to his advantage. Lopez was a genuine help to Brooklyn's defense last season. That more well-rounded game makes it easier to forgive his troubles on the glass. -- R.M.
35Goran Dragic, SunsGuard | Age: 28
6-4, 180 pounds
Last year: No. 88
• 20.3 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.2 RPG, 50.5 FG%, 40.8 3P%
• 21.4 PER, 10.3 Win Shares, 2.1 RAPM
Dragic was a worthy third-team All-NBA selection last season for his clever play with the ball and creativity in opening paths to the rim. Never before had Dragic carried an offense as effortlessly as he did the 2013-14 Suns, and never before had he hit shots both inside and out at such a superior rate. His scoring and playmaking helped surprising Phoenix contend for a playoff spot all year.
Without much gradual development, the 27-year-old erupted on a team stocked with shooters and guided by free-flowing pick-and-roll basketball. One could hardly put Dragic in a better position to succeed, a testament to coach Jeff Hornacek. The result, however, triggers some skepticism that Dragic and the Suns in general -- a team fueled by career years throughout its roster -- can build on their explosive success. As an extension of that thought, it's worth wondering if Dragic would be able to play to the same standard in a system not so completely tailored to his strengths. After all, he's only a year removed from being a merely above-average starting point guard. Dragic improved in the interim, but the extent of that improvement may be somewhat exaggerated by his environment. -- R.M.
34Paul Millsap, HawksForward | Age: 29
6-8, 245 pounds
Last year: No. 38
• 17.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 3.1 APG, 46.1 FG%, 35.8 3P%
• 19.8 PER, 6.7 Win Shares, 2.1 RAPM
Overlooked for years in the West's overloaded power forward crop, Millsap left rebuilding Utah for middling Atlanta in 2013 and was immediately rewarded with his first All-Star selection.
His two-way, no-nonsense, workhorse game didn't change much, and his newfound recognition said more about the talent disparity between the conferences than it did about his performance. Nevertheless, Millsap should still be commended for emerging as the Hawks' leading scorer after Al Horford went down with a season-ending pectoral injury in December. An Atlanta team that wobbled down the stretch on its way to the No. 8 seed would have been in truly dire straits without Millsap's positive impact on both sides of the ball.
GM Danny Ferry's tenure came crashing down amid a race-related controversy this month, but his decision to grab Millsap for $19 million over two years rather than re-sign Josh Smith for $54 million over four years (Smith's deal with the Pistons) should be remembered as one of the better free-agent moves in recent years.-- B.G.
33Eric Bledsoe, SunsGuard | Age: 24
6-1, 190 pounds
Last year: No. 95
• 17.7 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.7 RPG, 47.7 FG%, 35.7 3P%
• 19.6 PER, 4.1 Win Shares, 1.4 RAPM
The lesser of Phoenix's dual point guards last season is nonetheless the better prospect for this season.
One shouldn't conflate Bledsoe's ranking over Dragic as some indication of their respective value to the Suns. Instead, this standing can be read as acknowledgement that Bledsoe has slightly more to offer a wide variety of teams playing a wide variety of styles. Such a case begins in coverage, where Bledsoe is among the best defenders at either guard position -- far more than can be said of Dragic's merely passable work on that end.
Bledsoe's athleticism, ridiculous even by NBA standards, provides a through line for every defensive possession. Small guards don't typically make for versatile defenders. But Bledsoe is strong enough to herd bigger opponents into help, quick enough to keep pace with the league's fastest and bouncy to enough to contest any kind of shot. Wind him up and he'll launch at an opponent with full defensive focus, hanging with every step and harping on every dribble. Slot him in at either guard position to allow for full cross-matching freedom.
Bledsoe's offense can also take whatever form his team requires, from that of a high-usage creator to an off-the-ball dynamo. Last season Bledsoe -- who spent his first three years as a Clippers backup -- thrived in his first crack at the former role, highlighted by much-improved shooting off the dribble and a more patient reading of pick-and-roll scenarios. Some regression on Bledsoe's mid-range shooting numbers could be in order, but the fact that he converted so effectively on his pull-up shots from all ranges suggests a basis for genuine growth.
If that kind of creative play isn't needed -- as when, say, slotted alongside Chris Paul -- Bledsoe has proved that he can make a living off cuts, spot-up looks and offensive rebounds. He reads the baseline unusually well for a nominal point guard, perhaps in part because he's spent his college and pro career sharing the floor with other playmakers. At every stop he's handled his positional redundancy with finesse, impressing more and more with every passing season.-- RM
32Mike Conley, GrizzliesGuard | Age: 26
6-1, 180 pounds
Last year: No. 39
• 17.2 PPG, 6.0 APG, 2.9 RPG, 45.0 FG%, 36.1 3P%
• 20.1 PER, 8.2 Win Shares, 4.2 RAPM
The patron saint of the underrated. It's criminal that Conley is overlooked so often in discussions of the NBA's point guard hierarchy, particularly when he made such a substantive leap last season through means of traditional stardom.
Conley's scoring average, a career high, approached that of Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard. Conley assumed a Tony Parker-like role in Memphis' offense: According to Synergy Sports, 42.4 percent of his possessions were used in basic pick-and-rolls, through which Conley scored at a more efficient rate than Parker did.
There's more than a passing comparison between Parker and Conley, a similarly agile player with all kinds of shake to his game. He may not be able to match the instant deceleration of Parker's stop-and-go, but Conley has the full arsenal of moves available with both hands and the fluency to string them together. His in-and-out dribble is just devastating -- worthy of imitation in driveways across the country.
Instead, Conley goes mostly forgotten as the orchestrator of a slow-paced, small-market team. The Grizzlies are awfully good, yet Conley suffers the same fate as Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in that even their successes don't capture much national attention. The fault for that rests not with Memphis or with Conley, who, in addition to his offensive growth, is a perennial All-Defensive candidate. A player this skilled, this committed to defense and this sound in his decision making deserves better. -- R.M.
31John Wall, WizardsGuard | Age: 23
6-4, 195 pounds
Last year: No. 40
• 19.3 PPG, 8.8 APG, 4.1 RPG, 43.3 FG%, 35.1 3P%
• 19.6 PER, 7.9 Win Shares, 2.9 RAPM
Wall had a 2013-14 season worthy of a No. 1 pick for a Wizards team that reached the second round for the first time in nine years.
Most important, he appeared in all 82 games, ranking fifth in minutes played one year after he was sidelined for nearly half the season. Wall's return helped Washington leap from No. 30 in offensive efficiency in 2012-13 to No. 16, and his pairing with fellow up-and-comer Bradley Beal gives the Wizards one of the league's best backcourts for years to come. The lightning-quick Wall joined fellow All-Stars Chris Paul and Stephen Curry as the only players to average 19 points and eight assists, but his real development came from beyond the arc. Shooting a career-high 35.1 percent from deep and hitting 108 threes hardly makes him a marksman, but remember that Wall was so gun-shy that he had made a total of just 49 over his first three seasons. A better-than-shaky jumper is a game-changer for someone with his handle, elusiveness and skill as a finisher.
That Wall led the league in turnovers remains his biggest need for development, but he attacks defenses with such speed and relentlessness that it's an excusable reality rather than a crisis. The next-level physical tools have always been in place for Wall, meaning that his already high ceiling simply gets that much higher as he continues to refine his all-around game. Two or three more seasons like last year, and Wall just might be a major player in the debate over the league's top point guard. -- B.G.
30Guard | Age: 28
6-0, 205 pounds
Last year: No. 81
• 17.9 PPG, 7.4 APG, 4.7 RPG, 42.3 FG%, 38.3 3P%
• 20.2 PER, 11.7 Win Shares, 2.0 RAPM
Lowry played the leading role in Extreme Makeover: Point Guard Edition in 2013-14, renovating his old reputation as a surly, mediocre floor general who had struggled to hold on to a starting job into a sparkling, new standing as an All-Star-caliber gamer who -- as he was invariably described -- served as the “heart and soul” of the upstart Raptors.
There’s no overselling the dramatic nature of Lowry’s improvement, as he posted career highs in minutes, points, assists, three-point percentage, PER, and Win Shares, while guiding Toronto to its first postseason trip since 2008 and a franchise-record 48 victories. Lowry was rewarded with a four-year, $48 million contract in free agency -- a critical part of the Raptors’ continuity. Coach Dwane Casey is back after signing a new contract, every key player has returned and Drake will still be cheering and lint-rolling from his courtside seat. The table is set, then, for Lowry to prove that he is more than just a one-hit wonder or contract-year standout. (He will surely draw motivation from being left off last season’s All-Star and All-NBA teams.) Lowry would do well to remember that reputations can be lost even more quickly than they are made. -- B.G.
29Andre Iguodala, WarriorsForward | Age: 30
6-6, 207 pounds
Last year: No. 33
• 9.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 4.2 APG, 48 FG%, 35.4 3P%
• 13.7 PER, 5.8 Win Shares, 6.3 RAPM
Individually speaking, Iguodala is the best perimeter defender in the league, so thorough in challenging an opponent through every stage of a possession that he leaves many without recourse.
From a wider view, however, Iguodala is one of two (provided that LeBron James is fully engaged, as was not the case last season) perimeter players capable of projecting a global, Defensive Player of the Year-worthy impact. Iguodala is so effective in so many ways that he can change the way his team defends. He can single-handedly ramp up pressure on the perimeter by smothering ball handlers and jumping passing lanes. His stellar help defense allows for a wider range of rotational responsibility. A team can even alter the principles that guide its big men, safe in the notion that Iguodala will need far less assistance in containing his man than most.
It was not by accident that with Iguodala’s arrival Golden State improved to third in defensive efficiency after finishing 13th in 2012-13. The same goes for Denver's jump from 19th to 11th in Iguodala’s one season (’12-13), or Philadelphia's No. 3 ranking in ‘11-12 with Iguodala as its top defensive player. His impact is that profound. According to RAPM, the 10-year veteran was the NBA’s most effective defender last season.
This is how a player who scores just 9.3 points per game comes to rank in the top 30. There are times when Iguodala's team suffers slightly for what he cannot (create like a superstar) or prefers not (shoot in volume) to do. Such is an acceptable cost, though, for a player of such comprehensive defensive value with a knack for offensive facilitation. -- R.M.
28Kawhi Leonard, SpursForward | Age: 23
6-7, 230 pounds
Last year: No. 37
• 12.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.0 APG, 52.2 FG%, 37.9 3P%
• 19.4 PER, 7.7 Win Shares, -0.2 RAPM
Leonard makes you rub your eyes twice. First, when he does something amazing, like snaring a defensive rebound with one hand, quickly dribbling the ball up the court and then calmly burying a three-pointer during a pressure-packed postseason game. Second, when you look at his stat line and wonder why his eye-test heroics aren’t really reflected in his numbers.
Trevor Ariza, Nicolas Batum and other complementary wings put up better per-game stats than Leonard last season, and yet it was the famously quiet 2011 first-round pick who surprisingly became the youngest Finals MVP since Magic Johnson.
Of course, coach Gregg Popovich’s spread-it-around approach to minutes plays a major role in shaping perception here. Leonard averaged 29.1 minutes last season, substantially fewer than he would play for just about any other contender. By systematically preserving his players, even a younger guy like Leonard, Popovich unintentionally dims their star power, too, a fact that makes assessing and projecting Leonard’s standing around the league that much more difficult. If he is already capable of going head-to-head with an in-his-prime LeBron James, and winning, shouldn’t Leonard be mentioned alongside Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis as the NBA’s major players once James starts slowing down?
Something about that still feels a bit too ambitious, even though Leonard is an impact player on both sides of the ball and has a proven track record of showing up big in the postseason. Perhaps the hesitancy is caused by the fact that he isn’t an elite off-the-dribble player, or because he’s never been forced to be a lead offensive option, or because he seems to actively dodge the spotlight. However, as with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker before him, the rings and postseason accomplishments have a way of speaking for themselves, even when detractors attempt to credit “the system” rather than its individual pieces.
This much is clear: Leonard is now in position to start on three straight Finals teams and win two titles before his 24th birthday, something that Duncan, James, Durant and many other greats can’t match. Maybe that aforementioned hesitancy should be giving way to a little more hype. -- B.G.
27DeMarcus Cousins, KingsCenter | Age: 24
6-11, 270 pounds
Last year: No. 53
• 22.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 2.9 APG, 49.6 FG%
• 26.2 PER, 7.9 Win Shares, 0.3 RAPM
While it's hard to know exactly what to make of Cousins at times, we can begin with acknowledgement that he was one of the most absurdly productive players in the league last season.
He had a higher PER than Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry. He ranked ninth in scoring while reaching career highs in shooting percentage and free-throw attempts. He led the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage and was a top-five rebounder overall.
All of this is important because, on some level, Cousins is what he does. He's been knocked for his maturity, shot selection and defensive discipline, all of which have been worthy of criticism at some point or another. But overall Cousins is simply one of the most skilled and effective bigs in the game. The red flags are so clearly secondary to the fact that Cousins is a damn good basketball player, as was shown to the world in sometimes brilliant stints with Team USA this summer. One could even argue that Cousins was the Americans’ top player in the FIBA World Cup gold-medal game, outdoing blistering offensive performances from Kyrie Irving and James Harden.
Cousins was a natural in such superstar company, but the Kings’ consistent misery keeps him from much NBA acclaim. He hasn't figured out how to make his teammates better yet, but to be fair he hasn't had much structural help from his coaches. He requires specific attention to ensure that he's in the right competitive mindset, given that Cousins is guilty of taking individual matchups and affronts too personally at times. It's all worth it, though. Cousins pays off the extra mile with his play. -- R.M.
26Al Jefferson, HornetsCenter | Age: 29
6-10, 289 pounds
Last year: No. 44
• 21.8 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 2.1 APG, 50.9 FG%
• 22.8 PER, 7.8 Win Shares, 0.0 RAPM
Jefferson deserves full credit for carrying Charlotte to the peak of its capabilities last season, even if that comes off as a bit of a backhanded compliment considering that the team won just 43 games and was swept in the first round.
But a middling season and swift playoff exit look peachy compared with the lean earlier stages of Michael Jordan’s rebuild. At first, Jefferson’s arrival last summer on a three-year, $41 million contract looked like a pure cash grab, but it didn’t take long for the 2004 first-round pick to change that perception. Jefferson, surrounded by a fairly inexperienced group of teammates, immediately gave Charlotte hope with his proven scoring and rebounding abilities. To everyone’s great surprise, he also served as the starting center for the NBA’s No. 6 defense, even though he’s been knocked as a liability on that end for years because of his limited foot speed and lift.
Jefferson was rewarded with an All-NBA third-team selection after finishing as one of just five players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds. That Charlotte more than doubled its 2012-13 win total surely played a big part in putting him over the top in the voting. By the time Jefferson was forced from the playoffs early with a foot injury, the Hornets’ season was already a huge success. Their offseason wasn’t bad, either, as a popular rebranding effort and the signing of Lance Stephenson put Charlotte in position to build on a promising foundation laid by Big Al. -- B.G.
25Al Horford, HawksCenter | Age: 28
6-10, 250 pounds
Last year: No. 22
• 18.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.6 APG, 56.7 FG%
• 22.1 PER, 2.8 Win Shares, 1.4 RAPM
Horford has been off the NBA radar after missing the final four months of last season with a torn pectoral muscle. Now healthy, he returns to provide the Hawks a worthy foundation.
So much of what Atlanta runs was schemed with Horford in mind. His post play and passing offer an inlet for a team of perimeter shooters; his balance between pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll keeps the offense flowing and varied; his solid all-around defensive play covers for failings elsewhere; his ability to guard centers allows the Hawks access to lineup combinations that compete defensively while maximizing their offensive potential. More succinctly, Atlanta draws heavily on the fact that Horford is essentially a player without weakness.
With his complete game, Horford can play either power forward or center in almost any system. Horford belongs to the rare subset of big men who can both carry a defense and credibly space the floor (he hit 49.2 percent of his mid-range shots last season and even made a few corner threes). He is hyper-flexible for the purposes of roster construction, allowing his team to chase the best frontcourt partner available without concern of fit. Atlanta opted to sign Paul Millsap, but one could just as easily place Horford alongside a big man of any kind. His game is eminently agreeable, which for a player of such remarkable skill makes Horford quite a catch.
The Horford-led Hawks started the season by winning 16 of 29 games and posting the 10th-best net rating. Horford has the functional skills to be the best player (or a close 1B) on a very good team, particularly if he can continue to score at the same rate (20.2 points per 36 minutes) and efficiency he showed through 29 games. -- R.M.
24Kobe Bryant, LakersGuard | Age: 36
6-6, 205 pounds
Last year: No. 9
• 13.8 PPG, 6.3 APG, 4.3 RPG, 42.5 FG%, 18.8 3P%
• 10.7 PER, -0.4 Win Shares, 1.7 RAPM
If … If … If. That’s the first and last word when it comes to Bryant, who is coming back from an Achilles injury that ended his 2012-13 season a week before the playoffs and a knee injury that cut his 2013-14 season short after just six nondescript games.
If Bryant can regain his form from two seasons ago, he’s easily the best two-guard in the game. If Bryant can average 25 points, then the Lakers have a shot at making the playoffs. If Bryant can stay healthy, he can resume his delayed chase of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. After exuding downright cockiness in his rehabilitation last season, Bryant has adopted a softer approach this time around, acknowledging that he will need to rely on his IQ and fundamentals as he learns to adapt his game.
Rivals would rather do just about anything than prematurely write off Bryant, out of respect to his work ethic and historical standing, but he’s reaching the point, age-wise, where few elite players have traveled. Consider this: In 2012-13, at age 34, Bryant posted 10.9 Win Shares, ranking eighth in the league. Jordan, Sam Cassell, Reggie Miller, John Stockton, Chet Walker, Jerry West and Detlef Schrempf are among the other perimeter players to exceed 10 Win Shares at that age. However, the age-decline cliff comes quickly, as Stockton is the only perimeter player to post 10 Win Shares after turning 36, which just so happens to be Bryant’s current age. In other words, getting back to his pre-injury form wouldn’t just be impressive; it would be virtually unprecedented.
The “ifs” continue from there. If anyone can do it, his legion of fans would argue, it would be Bryant. And, if he were really in trouble physically, the Lakers wouldn’t have given him a two-year, $48 million deal last November, right? Such a long layoff from meaningful basketball requires that Bryant slip from SI.com’s top 10 to a spot where he is surrounded by others with uncertain fates and injury issues. But if he can somehow push back against Father Time, even just for a season, Bryant will get an opportunity to do what he seems to love more than almost anything: make his media doubters look bad. -- B.G.
23Derrick Rose, BullsGuard | Age: 25
6-3, 190 pounds
Last year: No. 12
• 15.9 PPG, 4.3 APG, 3.2 RPG, 35.4 FG%, 34 3P%
• 9.8 PER, -0.2 Win Shares, 2.8 RAPM
Let’s keep it real: The only reason that Rose is in this position, or even the top 50, is because he was so scintillating during his 2010-11 MVP season that the benefit of the doubt he stockpiled still hasn’t been exhausted during three years of injuries, rehabilitations, more injuries and more rehabilitations.
If not for the vivid memories of elite play, there would be little to justify his inclusion. Over the past three seasons, Rose has played 49 regular-season games and one playoff game. Over the past two seasons, he’s rarely seen the court and has looked as rusty as it gets. During the FIBA World Cup, Rose regularly looked like Team USA’s weakest link, averaging 4.8 points and 3.1 assists while shooting just 25.4 percent from the field and 5.3 percent (1-of-19) from three-point range. Though he made a number of end-to-end flashes, he never really left his mark on the tournament, no matter how much positive encouragement he received from coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Ultimately, those shortcomings in Spain were irrelevant -- Team USA cruised to gold -- but Rose’s ability to regain something close to his old form will determine whether Chicago needs to be taken seriously as a contender in the East. The good news for Bulls fans is that Rose appeared to be enjoying peace of mind this summer despite all of his recent struggles. The bad news is that the cycle of negativity is perpetually waiting to rev up should he do so much as tweak an ankle. Hanging over this comeback, still, is Rose’s max contract, which paid him $34 million during the last two seasons and will pay him $18.9 million this season. The pressure, expectations and scrutiny won’t be easing up any time soon, but, with any luck, Rose will find a way to translate that peace of mind into the poetry in motion that has been missing for far too long. -- R.M.
22Damian Lillard, BlazersGuard | Age: 24
6-3, 195 pounds
Last year: No. 47
• 20.7 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.5 RPG, 42.4 FG%, 39.4 3P%
• 18.7 PER, 9.6 Win Shares, 1.9 RAPM
Sophomore slump? Forget about it. Lillard followed up his unanimous Rookie of the Year campaign by making the All-Star team and the All-NBA third team in a season capped by his series-clinching buzzer-beater that delivered the Blazers to the conference semifinals for the first time since 2000.
When he eliminated the Rockets with his quick-trigger three-pointer, Lillard was just doing what he does best. His combination of volume and efficiency from behind the arc (6.8 attempts, 39.4 percent) was bested only by Stephen Curry last season, and Lillard’s accuracy rose to 44.2 percent in clutch situations (the final five minutes of a five-point game). Lillard uses high screens and step-back dribbles to create looks, and he launches with the slightest bit of space. That rare gift -- plus an improved ability to get to the line -- helped Lillard rank No. 16 in scoring.
Lillard set goals after his rookie year -- become a better defender, fill out his mid-range game, learn to take and draw contact more effectively -- but his second season was defined more by improving his strengths rather than fixing his weaknesses. He continues to finish at a poor rate in the basket area (46.9 percent), he still has a long way to go to be a plus defender and he needs to deepen his bag of tricks near the paint. Nitpicking misses the larger point, though: Lillard went from being a no-name fast riser in the draft to a franchise guy with a playoff-series victory in two years. In that time, Lillard didn’t miss a game; that’s crucial, because Portland would be completely lost without him. -- B.G.
21Kyrie Irving, CavaliersGuard | Age: 22
6-3, 193 pounds
Last year: No. 20
• 20.8 PPG, 6.1 APG, 3.6 RPG, 43.0 FG%, 35.8 3P%
• 20.1 PER, 6.7 Win Shares, -1.3 RAPM
How insignificant does Irving’s flat-line 2013-14 season seem in comparison to the promise of the next half-decade of Cavaliers basketball?
It wasn’t all bad for Irving, whose his flashy off-the-dribble game and confident approach earned him his second straight All-Star appearance. On that stage, Irving took home MVP honors, a distress flare to the league’s other stars that seemed to be saying, “I’m still the most promising young point guard in this league, someone come save me from this mess.” LeBron James and Kevin Love both arrive on their own terms, but they will certainly make life easier for Irving, who no longer needs to run the entire show on offense. Look for the No. 1 pick in 2011 to feast in the open court and in one-on-one situations when defenses load up on his All-Star teammates. His MVP performance at the FIBA World Cup gave viewers a taste of what he might look like if allowed more time and space, as Irving torched defenders off the dribble and made them pay for giving him too much daylight on the perimeter.
Irving’s eagerness to turn over leadership responsibilities to James has been one of the most intriguing developments during a whirlwind summer. Those comments read like an indirect admission of failure last season, and they sounded like they were coming from someone who was ready to adopt a "sponge" approach to playing alongside one of the game’s all-time greats. It won’t take long for Irving to realize that James’ arrival will actually increase the constant pressure and scrutiny on all of his teammates, even as the four-time MVP shoulders the load on the court in ways they have never experienced before. How Irving handles the circus, at 22 and with no postseason experience, will be one of the major factors in determining how quickly James’ Cavaliers can contend for the championship. -- B.G.
20Guard | Age: 32
6-4, 220 pounds
Last year: No. 8
• 19.0 PPG, 4.7 APG, 4.5 RPG, 54.5 FG%, 28.1 3P%
• 22.1 PER, 5.5 Win Shares, 2.9 RAPM
Ailing knees have ended Wade's superstardom, as his shot distribution and free throw rate can attest. Wade's availability is also subject to the swelling in his knees and their preemptive maintenance. Only so much can be done to protect against the fact that Wade is now prone to slow up for stretches or miss games entirely (he played just 54 in the 2013-14 regular season), cleanly separating him from the ranks of the NBA's best every-night performers.
There's still room within that characterization, however, for Wade to be a terrific player. Last season he was one of just nine players to average 19 points, four rebounds and four assists, and one of only two -- along with Russell Westbrook -- to do so as a team's second option. There's no question that LeBron James helped Wade in certain ways, as can only be the case when sharing the floor with a superstar playmaker. Yet playing a secondary role also positioned Wade for a lower-usage season of deferred shot creation. Wade worked through that internal hierarchy to put together a fine season, but even on shaky knees he's capable of generating more opportunity for offense.
He did well in creating for himself and others, particularly out of pick-and-rolls. Wade is especially sharp in tandem with big men who roll hard and finish well. In contrast to his pick-and-roll partner's direct move toward the basket, Wade slinks through the lane while constantly changing the speed and angle of his approach. His floater, especially from straight away, is killer. If given the lane to the rim, Wade -- even if less explosive -- converts well through uncanny body control. And he has the awareness to hit the roll man at any point along the way.
Wade still isn't a credible three-point shooter, but he makes it work on the weak side by being decisive when the ball swings his way. That most opponents won't guard an off-the-ball Wade out to the three-point line allows him to gather a head of steam on counter drives, through which he can either get to the rim or pull up for a shorter jumper. Wade's capacity to accomplish any of this weak-side action is diminished when worn down (as happened in the NBA Finals), though those instances are still greatly outweighed by a more consistent ability to create.
Wade has his flaws, from his far too casual transition defense to his love of the step-back jumper to the confluence of age and injury. He's so clearly valuable despite those shortcomings, though, because his game still bears superstar streaks. — R.M.
19Serge Ibaka, ThunderForward | Age: 24
6-10, 245 pounds
Last year: No. 29
• 15.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.7 BPG, 53.6 FG%
• 19.7 PER, 9.6 Win Shares, 0.7 RAPM
The Thunder's system of scrambling defensive pressure wouldn't work if opponents didn't fear Ibaka, and opponents wouldn't fear him if Ibaka didn't follow through by swatting a terrifying amount of shots. Teammates on the perimeter can gamble and attempt to rush foes, content in the knowledge that Ibaka will slide over to challenge any drive that gets through.
Quite simply, Ibaka is a game changer. He's one of the best defenders in the game and, at just 24, projects to only grow more intuitive and disciplined. That value alone would earn Ibaka a favorable ranking, but what positions him in the top 20 is the intersection of defense, stout rebounding and burgeoning offensive utility.
Ibaka is effective in all the ways you'd expect of a 6-10 athletic specimen: He rolls well, he finishes strong around the rim and he's great at converting second-chance opportunities. Beyond that, Ibaka boasts a confident mid-range game that builds with every season. From the base skill of making 18-footers off a teammate's drive-and-kick, Ibaka has begun to branch out in two interesting ways: He has dabbled in spacing all the way out for corner threes and has experimented with taking a dribble or two on the catch to get a better look. Both make Ibaka (and the Thunder) that much more difficult to defend.
Elite defensive players with enough offense to get by are premium commodities, as are floor spacers with any defensive ability. Ibaka satisfies those minimum criteria with enough surplus skill to rank as one of the best players of his kind. — R.M.
18Chris Bosh, HeatForward | Age: 30
6-11, 235 pounds
Last year: No. 17
• 16.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.1 APG, 51.6 FG%, 33.9 3P%
• 19.1 PER, 8.0 Win Shares, 2.7 RAPM
Bosh may never be fully appreciated by casual fans -- he's too unusual a player and too quirky a personality -- but those who watch him closely see what a tremendous resource he is. It was through his evolution that the Heat found transcendence, and it's to Bosh's great credit that he could be used in entirely different ways to help a different team find the same.
With Miami, the critical points in Bosh's skill set were his defensive mobility and stretch shooting. Erik Spoelstra relied on Bosh's ability to cover ground quickly in devising the Heat's pick-and-roll coverage. Bosh was drawn all the way out beyond the three-point line to trap the ball handler in pick-and-rolls and then expected to recover in time to prevent disaster. Miami was, until last season, one of the best pick-and-roll defenses in the league because of Bosh's ability to handle the timing and sheer speed of those actions. That burden finally caught up to Bosh and the Heat last year, but a more conservative system of coverage could nonetheless rely on Bosh in similar ways. He slides into position effectively as a help defender around the basket, where his vertical extension makes more of a difference than his pedestrian shot-blocking numbers would suggest. Bosh also handles himself well within individual matchups against power forwards and centers both, offering the freedom to slot him as needed.
Bosh's shooting folds into that positional flexibility, as he may be the best shooter in the league who is also a credible center. Bosh shot 48.5 percent on mid-range shots last season. He doesn't really have hot spots when it comes to shooting within the three-point line; Miami stationed him most at the high elbows to help clear space, but Bosh can be moved across the floor at little or no cost to his accuracy. He's broadening his range to the three-point line as well, as Bosh attempted more three-pointers last season than he had in the previous five seasons combined.
That kind of shooting gave a great, consistent outlet for James and Wade, though Bosh is still plenty capable of higher-usage shot creation. Bosh shifted away from the post by Miami's design. In those cases when he did go to work from the block, however, Bosh was as efficient as one would expect given his history. This is a player who elevated the Raptors to top-10 offensive standing in 2009-10 primarily through varied post moves. Bosh may not be the kind of bruiser one would expect of a post-up beast, yet he has the moves, the touch and the quickness to catch defenders off guard. He has it in him to put up big numbers from the post again if so inclined, and Bosh has proven throughout his career that he'll be inclined to do whatever his team needs most. — R.M.
17Joakim Noah, BullsCenter | Age: 29
6-11, 232 pounds
Last year: No. 21
• 12.6 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 5.3 APG, 47.5 FG%
• 20.1 PER, 11.2 Win Shares, 1.3 RAPM
The Bulls had no choice but to lean on Noah more than ever in 2013-14 following the loss of Derrick Rose and the cost-cutting midseason trade of Luol Deng. The 2007 lottery pick responded with the most complete season of his career, earning All-Star, All-NBA First Team and Defensive Player of the Year honors as he carried Chicago to 48 wins. Noah led the league in defensive rating and defensive win shares while serving as the backline of the NBA’s second-best team defense. The 6-foot-11 center gets it done with frenetic energy, a maniacal commitment to the defensive glass, a honed understanding of defensive spacing and the physical tools to cover lots and lots of ground.
In an unexpected twist, and perhaps because of Chicago’s sheer desperation for anything approaching hope on the offensive end, Noah’s growth as a playmaker wound up drawing significant acclaim last season. Stuck on a roster devoid of off-the-dribble threats and true floor-spacers, Noah emerged as a high-post facilitator; he averaged 5.5 assists per game, the most among players standing 6-foot-10 or taller, and he did it while cutting down his turnover rate. The approach ultimately proved to be nothing more than a useful curiosity, as the punch-less Bulls were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Wizards, failing to top 94 points in any of their four losses. That coach Tom Thibodeau turned to Noah to address his team’s biggest weakness, though, serves as additional evidence of Noah’s overall value.
As a two-way player, Noah is much closer to Marc Gasol than he is to Dwight Howard, with his own abilities as a scoring threat slanting towards passable rather than overwhelming. That’s a totally manageable reality assuming Rose finally returns to form: Noah easily slides back perfectly into his role as captain of the defense and a complementary option on offense who picks his spots and cleans up in the basket area. If Rose can’t shake his depressing cycle, Chicago will once again be stuck without anything resembling a true No. 1 scoring option, a fact that not even Noah’s elite defensive abilities will be able to overcome. — B.G.
16Marc Gasol, GrizzliesCenter | Age: 29
7-1, 265 pounds
Last year: No. 14
• 14.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 3.6 APG, 47.3 FG%
• 18.3 PER, 5.6 Win Shares, 2.1 RAPM
Gasol doesn't have the disposition to score as much as his skills would allow. Instead, he opts for defensive dominance with a more balanced offensive role. The former is his primary appeal. At 7-1, Gasol is a natural threat as a shot blocker. Yet where he really excels is in filling space that would otherwise allow opponents to manufacture the best shots possible. His is an intuitive defensive style predicated on the instant recognition of angles and lanes; Gasol -- who has strange agility for a man of his size -- relies on that awareness to beat his opponent to a spot and limit his options thereafter.
Implicit in that kind of rotation work is Gasol's feel for just how much of a cushion he can give to particular opposing centers. The scouting report differs from night to night, if not from substitution to substitution. Gasol always seems to know, though, how long he can get away with straying from particular opponents. That awareness isn't as simple as understanding that Kendrick Perkins need not be guarded closely. Gasol stretches out the beat of his help defense long enough to disrupt the action as much as possible before recovering to his own man just in time for a quality contest. Mastery of that exchange is arguably the most important of all defensive skills in the modern NBA, given just how much players like Gasol are relied on to crowd and control opposing ball handlers.
Gasol's offensive game is more complicated. It can be frustrating how frequently he ignores his own scoring opportunities, if only because his unselfish nature doesn't always do his skills justice. Gasol dances in the post; his footwork keeps him a full step ahead of his defender, from which he can rely on feathery touch and great ball control to score in all kinds of ways. His size all but demands that opponents bite hard on pump fakes lest they be caught flat-footed as Gasol's shot floats overhead. One would think that a player with such advantages would be a dominant scorer. Gasol is merely respectable (15.7 points per 36 minutes) while working as much from the elbow as he does down low. Last season Gasol was reluctantly pushed to a career-high 13 field goal attempts per game by Memphis' lack of alternatives. That's reasonable, and frankly welcome in a league where so many players focus on getting shots up. Yet with Gasol worthy of taking on a bigger scoring role than he has currently, there are times where his reluctance to attack opponents consistently and directly can be a problem.
Any damage caused is offset by Gasol's outstanding contributions as a facilitator. According to SportVU's player tracking data, no player in the league got more touches at the elbow last season -- a space on the floor which gives Gasol full view of the game action. Memphis will run hand-off action for Mike Conley through that placement, with Gasol giving up the ball and then pivoting into a hard screen. If the angle is there for Conley, he'll push all the way to the rim. If not, he'll whip the ball back to Gasol at the elbow to dictate a contingency. Sharp mid-range shooting gives Gasol the option to hoist up a shot if he likes the look, though more often he'll swing to an open shooter or fire off a passer to a follow-up cutter. Only Joakim Noah averaged more assists per game among centers last season, though Noah on average had 18 more touches per game than Gasol did. — R.M.
15Tony Parker, SpursGuard | Age: 32
6-2, 185 pounds
Last year: No. 4
• 16.7 PPG, 5.7 APG, 2.3 RPG, 49.9 FG%, 37.3 3P%
• 19 PER, 5.9 Win Shares, 3.8 RAPM
Overreacting to Parker’s fall from No. 4 last year would be a mistake. Yes, he is the only member of last year’s top five that wasn’t back this year and, yes, he is one of the biggest sliders among this year’s top 25. That relative change says less about Parker himself and more about the ruthless nature of ranking the league’s 15 best players. At this stage of the list, even a very good season that includes an All-Star trip, an All-NBA Second Team selection, and another championship victory doesn’t guarantee preferred placement.
That’s exactly the type of year Parker had: very good, but not quite up to his 2012-13 play that drew scattered MVP talk and included that stumbling, bumbling banker against the Heat that stands as one of the most memorable shots in recent Finals history. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich opted to cut Parker’s minutes to their lowest level since his rookie year, a decision that carved a chunk out of the French point guard’s per-game production. Even on a per-minute basis, though, Parker took a slight step back as a scoring threat and as a play-maker, and both his major advanced statistics and his net rating numbers reflect a reduced impact in 2013-14.
Had Parker really turned it on in the playoffs, perhaps the regression would have been forgiven, or at least solely attributed to Popovich’s unique methods. Instead, Tim Duncan’s excellent postseason, Manu Ginobili’s bounceback year, the Finals MVP play of Kawhi Leonard, and even Boris Diaw’s supreme work as a series-altering X-factor combined to squeeze Parker off center stage. Untimely injuries didn’t help either; Parker sat out the second half of San Antonio’s closeout wins against both Portland and Oklahoma City. Indeed, Parker’s most prolific postseason performances – 32 points and four assists in a Game 7 win over the Mavericks and 33 points and nine assists in a message-sending Game 1 win over the Blazers – came so early that they were easily forgotten by the time the champagne was flowing in the AT&T Center.
Regardless, Parker remains one of the league’s most accomplished, potent point guards, a slithery off-the-dribble threat who is a machine when it comes to creating open lay-ups and three-pointers. By agreeing early to a three-year, $43 million contract extension, Parker fully solidified his future as the leader of the post-Duncan/Ginobili era and eliminated any stress that might come from playing in a contract year. No one should be surprised if Parker -- with San Antonio poised to make another deep postseason run and his “Big Three” teammates another year older – makes a nice climb back up next year’s Top 100 list. — B.G.
14Dirk Nowitzki, MavericksForward | Age: 36
7-0, 245 pounds
Last year: No. 16
• 21.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 49.7 FG%, 39.8 3P%
• 23.7 PER, 10.9 Win Shares, 3.9 RAPM
There are certain players on our list who were given the benefit of the doubt in their ranking based on extensive playing histories. Nowitzki was not one of them.
Nowitzki is this good right this second, having just led the Mavs to a virtual tie for the best offense in the league last season before challenging the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. At 36, Dirk is still utterly impossible to defend, wrecking opponents with his shot-making and bending defensive principles to his will.
He's an awesome hub for offense, even at this late stage of his career. Nowitzki is as good as it gets from the post. If covered by a single defender, Nowitzki maneuvers through footwork to arc his fadeaway comfortably out of reach. His success rate on that shot all but demands a double team, which Nowitzki generally uses to either create contact for a foul or exploit with a pass. His years of dealing with pressure from every conceivable angle has helped him identify the open man quickly in those situations, which in most cases nets a wide open look for some shooter on the weak side of the floor. On his scoring attempts alone Nowitzki returns better than a point per post-up possession, according to Synergy Sports, awesome output for an easily accessible half-court option.
Buoying that efficiency is Nowitzki's careful execution. So methodical is Nowitzki in his rhythm of ball fakes that he very rarely turns the ball over. By percentage, only five qualified players turned the ball over less frequently last season. Among them were two spot-up specialists (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Tim Hardaway Jr.), a big who rarely touched the ball save when in scoring position (Dante Cunningham) and an invisible sop of empty minutes (Tayshaun Prince).
Where Nowitzki gets some demerit are in the expected regards: defense and rebounding. He declines steadily in both categories as he ages, though to this point Nowitzki is passable enough to avoid any serious problems.
Nowitzki just does too much to enable high-functioning offense to dwell on where he falls short as a rebounder or defender. As a pick-and-roll partner, Nowitzki opens up the floor completely for those around him. Ball handlers coming around one of his well-angled screens are likely shocked, again and again, to find the coast clear on the other side. All because Nowitzki can't be left; his defender is responsible for showing or dropping or providing some kind of resistance to the ball handler, yet wandering even a few steps from Nowitzki risks giving a clean look to one of the best shooters in the game. Just by being on the floor Nowitzki pulls an opponent out of their usual timing and off of their needed responsibilities. That kind of disruption -- when accompanied by awesome production -- can change everything. — R.M.
13James Harden, RocketsGuard | Age: 25
6-5, 220 pounds
Last year: No. 161
• 25.4 PPG, 6.1 APG, 4.7 RPG, 45.6 FG%, 36.6 3P%
• 23.5 PER, 12.8 Win Shares, 3.1 RAPM
Has Harden eclipsed Russell Westbrook and Dwight Howard as the NBA’s most polarizing and vilified superstar? Houston’s All-Star guard is a Texas-sized target for so many reasons: his unkempt beard, his flop-happy histrionics, his criminally negligent defense, his occasional oh-what-the-hell approach to shot selection and, most seriously, his shaky 2014 postseason which ended in an early exit.
There’s also the matter of his willingness to publicly and directly express his rosy self-evaluations. Last year, after Kevin Durant vouched for him, Harden reasonably agreed that he should be regarded as one of the NBA’s top 10 players (the discussion unfolded after Harden was placed at No. 11 on SI.com’s “Top 100 Players of 2014” list). Then, earlier this summer, Harden declared that he is “the best all-around basketball player in the NBA” – a much more dubious claim considering the one-way nature of his game and the fact that LeBron James, Durant, Chris Paul, and Howard, among others, better fit the bill. Prematurely touting oneself for such a coveted title is certainly an efficient method for peeving the masses.
The ill will is understandable, but it has also gone way too far. Often lost in the noise is just how brilliant, dependable, and diverse Harden is an offensive player: the All-NBA First Team selection ranked No. 1 among two guards in PER, No. 5 overall in Win Shares, No. 5 in points, No. 5 in minutes, No. 3 in free throw attempts, and he was the leading scorer on the league’s No. 4 offense. Harden can beat you from behind the arc, off the dribble going to the rim, off the dribble for a step back, off the dribble to draw contact, and from just about everywhere else. He can beat you himself if you elect to single cover you and he can beat you with his vision if you load up. He can beat you despite the burden of huge minutes and a system and collection of teammates that requires he create plays for himself and others from tip to buzzer. In terms of all-around offensive players, he belongs with James, Durant, Paul and Carmelo Anthony in the top five. The insanely long YouTube video of Harden’s defensive miscues is hilarious, but just remember that there is a much, much longer video of him torching defenses that is just waiting to be made.
Besides Anthony Davis, who is still only 21, Harden just might have the greatest untapped potential of any elite player. What is his ceiling if he gets truly serious about his defensive and awareness shortcomings? How devastating would a Harden-led offense be if Rockets GM Daryl Morey is able to assemble the right complementary parts and Harden trusts them to share the load? For now, Harden has earned the “Best Shooting Guard in the NBA” title, thanks largely to age-related regression from Wade and Kobe Bryant, but he needs to work on some of those criticism-inducing gaps in his game before he cracks the league’s overall top 10. — B.G.
12LaMarcus Aldridge, BlazersForward | Age: 29
6-11, 240 pounds
Last year: No. 18
• 23.3 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, 45.8 FG%
• 21.8 PER, 7.5 Win Shares, 3.7 RAPM
For Aldridge, the self-cast Rodney Dangerfield of the NBA’s deep group of elite power forwards, 2013-14 marked the most fulfilling and gratifying season of his eight-year career. Stuck in the lottery for two seasons as Blazers management attempted to move on from Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, Aldridge began venting some frustrations last summer. It was one thing for Aldridge to feel snubbed in comparison to higher-profile peers like Levin Love or Blake Griffin; it was far worse to feel like his team wasn't capable of putting him on a big enough stage to stake his claim to the awards and adulation.
The arrival of Robin Lopez, a big-bodied center, not only allowed Aldridge to play his preferred power forward position full-time, but it also gave Portland just enough defense to support its free-flowing offense. Throw in some nice progress from All-Star guard Damian Lillard, and the result was a surprising 54-win season, the Blazers’ first playoff series victory since 2000, and a new national appreciation for Aldridge, who briefly earned some buzz as an MVP candidate while taking home All-Star and All-NBA Third Team honors. His eye-popping coming out party occurred early in Portland’s first-round series against Houston: Aldridge tallied 43 points and 18 rebounds in Game 1 and then dropped 43 points and eight rebounds in Game 2, as the Blazers took both games on the road before finishing out the series in six games. Over a span of four days, Aldridge had succeeded in rewriting Portland’s postseason record books.
The other shoe dropped against the Spurs in the conference semifinals, as Aldridge’s torrid shooting cooled off considerably and the Blazers were sent packing in five games. For years, the biggest knock on the 6-foot-11 Aldridge has been that he is over-reliant on his jumper and that he is too willing to launch long twos. It’s a fair criticism, but one that requires the full picture: Aldridge was the No. 1 option on the league’s No. 5 offense, he rarely turns the ball over, he poses a very real threat to defenses every time he goes to the left block, his placement away from the hoop draws defenders from the basket and creates space inside, he has made big strides as a passer and is therefore able to avoid “settling” more often than his critics might think, and he rarely takes a truly bad look because he has a high release point and is a proficient shooter from just about everywhere inside the arc. Even with those many strengths acknowledged, Aldridge’s volume shooting can have a damaging effect because, unlike Love or Chris Bosh, he hasn’t yet extended his range behind the arc. Last season, Aldridge attempted the third-most shots in the league and yet his effective field goal percentage ranked 18th among the top 20 scorers (besting only DeMar DeRozan and Josh Smith). All of those empty possessions were bound to catch up eventually, and that’s exactly what happened against the Spurs’ finely-tuned machine.
Big picture, the 29-year-old Aldridge is cresting through his prime right on schedule. He posted career-highs in both points and rebounds last season – joining Love as the only players to average 23/11 -- and his advanced numbers (+3.7 RAPM, +7.1 net rating) reflect his standing as one of the NBA’s most indispensable players. Set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, Aldridge’s 2013 emo mumblings have given way to a public commitment to remain in Portland, and the Blazers in turn have expressed their willingness to re-sign him to a max contract. With Love now riding shotgun to LeBron James in Cleveland, Griffin continuing to shine in Los Angeles, and Anthony Davis rising like a meteor, it’s fair to wonder whether Aldridge will ever be universally hailed as the NBA’s best power forward. As long as the Blazers keep winning, though, he can’t be left out of the conversation. — B.G.
11Carmelo Anthony, KnicksForward | Age: 30
6-8, 235 pounds
Last year: No. 10
• 27.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 45.2 FG%, 40.2 3P%
• 24.5 PER, 10.7 Win Shares, 2.4 RAPM
Last season marked another strong but ultimately futile campaign for Anthony, who would have been frighteningly easy to forget about if not for his outrageous 62-point effort against Charlotte and his string of 40-point games in February. Those peaks inspired a sense of pity for all of the involved parties; here was the league’s second-leading scorer taking out the frustration of a wasted year of his basketball prime on defenders that didn’t have a prayer.
The problem for Anthony, of course, was that his individual dominance wasn’t sufficient to lift the Knicks out of a season so wretched that it cost coach Mike Woodson his job. Anthony was good enough to carry New York to the East’s third-best offense, but not good enough to prevent the Knicks from ranking No. 24 on defense. Anthony was good enough to score 35+ points on 11 occasions, but not good enough to prevent the Knicks from going 5-6 in those games. Anthony was selfless enough to take on a career-high minutes load, but was helpless in the face of J.R. Smith’s nonsense, Raymond Felton’s malfeasance, and Tyson Chandler’s injury absences. Anthony was good enough to keep the Knicks in the hunt for the East’s final playoff spot until late in the season, but that really isn’t saying much at all, now is it? Of the top 20 players on SI.com’s “Top 100 Players of 2015” list, only Anthony Davis, who was 20 years old for most of last season, lost more games than Anthony. The standard set by his elite peers suggests that Anthony should really be too old and established for this type of mediocrity.
Had this been a total aberration, or if there were strong cause for hope going forward, Anthony would likely be given a pass. Instead, he has reached age 30 with three playoff series victories to his name, only one of which came in the last half-decade. After signing a new five-year, near-max contract to remain in New York, Anthony is staring at the prospect of another multi-year rebuilding program guided by a rookie coach in Derek Fisher and a rookie president in Phil Jackson. To make matters worse, the Knicks are without any players that are close to being viewed as second or third stars. The difficult-to-avoid conclusion is that Anthony will likely be stuck toiling away outside of the championship contention club for the foreseeable future.
That bleak outlook might be hard to swallow for those clinging to the good memories of a promising 2012-13 season, but fortunes often change quickly in the NBA, and Anthony has yet to show that he’s capable of making the leap from “elite offensive talent” to “transformational two-way player.” — B.G.
10Forward | Age: 25
6-10, 251 pounds
Last year: No. 19
• 24.1 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 52.8 FG%
• 24 PER, 12.2 Win Shares, 4.1 RAPM
Griffin is a finisher so fearsome that a rotating defender's main objective is to avoid embarrassment. Some do so by conceding the points. Others simply play for the foul, particularly in transition. Griffin gets to the line on 19 percent of his fast-break possessions, per Synergy Sports, more than LeBron James (13.4 percent), Russell Westbrook (13.5 percent) and even the foul-baiting James Harden (17 percent). It's often all an opponent can do to foul Griffin after he makes a catch in open space, a dilemma that extends into half-court situations off of Griffin's cuts and rolls.
Not that a foul can really stop him. Griffin has the strength and body control to burst through contact, and last season he created more and-one opportunities than all but two other players (James and DeMarcus Cousins). To add to the hopelessness of beating Griffin with contact, fouling the All-NBA forward is no longer the value play it once was. A player who once bounced between the 50s and 60s in free throw percentage made the jump to 71.5 percent last season and 74 percent in the playoffs. It's still probably wise for a defense to take its chances with Griffin at the line instead of giving up easy looks, but even that assumes that individual defenders are strong and quick enough to have any say in the matter. Griffin is such a tough cover that it's difficult to even foul him effectively.
In between the highlights, there is also a big man with the ball skills of a guard and the strength to displace even the burliest of opponents. Dwelling on the dunking understates the rest of what Griffin does well, including those skills that most set him apart. Griffin is a singular talent for how he moves and handles with the ball in his hands on the perimeter. He is as comfortable in that space -- while breaking opponents down off the dribble and making keen plays -- as anywhere else on the floor, and is thus able to be used in ways that the great majority of bigs cannot.
Griffin's post game still relies on some pretty crazy moves, but unorthodox shouldn't be confused for ineffective. The Clipper is just too strong and well coordinated to have his improvisations quashed. Sometimes he'll back down an opponent before drop stepping into a leaping, swiveling finger roll. At others Griffin will face up and beat his man to prime position for a hook shot. Much taller, lankier defenders can sometimes give him problems. Yet more often than not Griffin finds a way around, through, or over the top of a defender.
With all of these threats to account for, defenses have given Griffin room on the perimeter in an effort to challenge his range. His shot is still very much a work in progress. But to his credit, Griffin refuses to go overboard in his attempts to prove his jumper worthy of a defense's attention. Last season Griffin expertly walked the line between confident takes and patient plays for better offense. Mid-range jumpers will never be the core of Griffin's game and he doesn't treat them as such. They're merely a change of pace, a counterbalance, a bit of seasoning. His shooting need only be competent enough to keep those other lanes for offense open, and Griffin has reached that point already while keeping his offensive priorities in order. — B.G.
9Dwight Howard, RocketsCenter | Age: 28
6-11, 265 pounds
Last year: No. 7
• 18.3 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 59.1 FG%
• 21.4 PER, 8.0 Win Shares, 2.7 RAPM
There are those in the league who score like Dwight, others who rebound like him, and some who even compare defensively. But there is no one who does all of the above save for the genuine article. Howard isn't without his deficiencies as a player and teammate, but what he contributes still ranks him among the NBA's finest. A particularly strong season could easily move Howard up this list, perhaps even as high as No. 4. That's the level of impact he can have on a game and a team, no matter the noise concerning his post-up mechanics and free throw shooting.
Since coming into the league Howard has been told that he needs to dominate from the post. Gradually he began to take heed, complaining publicly at times regarding his lack of post touches and calling for the ball more aggressively in games. What Howard seems to want is essentially the post-up version of an isolation -- focused, stagnant, and less efficient than the alternatives.
That works to a point. After all, Howard ranked third in field goal percentage (and really, first among actual shot creators) despite working against set, physical defenders on the majority of his scoring attempts. Overall, though, Howard is capable of becoming a more widely effective post scorer provided that he move beyond commanding the ball in such straightforward fashion.
Or better yet: Commit more consistently to the pick-and-roll. If Howard isn't the single most dominant pick-and-roll player in the league, he's not far off. Last season he converted 74 percent -- seventy-four percent -- of his shot attempts out of pick-and-roll situations and drew fouls on more still. Yet such possessions accounted for 7.1 percent of his total offense, in part because of Howard's preference for traditional, back-down post play. Built into that number is the attention that Howard draws on his rolls to the rim, which by extension opens up looks for his teammates while denying his own scoring opportunities. His pick-and-roll usage is not as bad as it seems. Still, it's telling that when the Rockets are in need of a basket, Howard's natural response is often to retreat to the left block, put a body on his man and gesture wildly. He can do just fine from that position and from it dictates the course of a possession. Giving up some of that control, though, would help redistribute Howard's game to even greater efficiency.
Howard's struggles from the free throw line, on the other hand, cannot really be excused. Last season saw Howard shoot a three-year high from the stripe…and still he topped out at 55 percent. Defenders are incentivized to play Howard as physically as is allowed for that reason. At best, they hack and push and the officials swallow their whistles. At worst, they tweak Howard's confidence and send a terrible shooter to the line. That opponents are willing to foul Howard so often does help his team get into the bonus more quickly, though whatever gains are made in terms of free throw rate trade off with the complications in such woeful shooting.
Keep in mind, though, that Howard's free throw shooting is a small blemish on a much more robust game. His interior scoring gives a team structure and his massive defensive impact -- even if last year's Defensive Player of the Year voting didn't quite reflect it -- puts him a notch above other centers. Howard wasn't able to lift the Rockets to truly excellent defensive marks overall (they ranked 12th in points allowed per possession) last season, but he was given flimsy defensive support, if that. Maybe he wasn't as good as he's ever been, but Howard is still a monster defender still. — R.M.
8Stephen Curry, WarriorsGuard | Age: 26
6-3, 185 pounds
Last year: No. 15
• 24 PPG, 8.5 APG, 4.3 RPG, 47.1 FG%, 42.4 3P%
• 24.1 PER, 13.4 Win Shares, 4.3 RAPM
There are shooters and then there is Curry. As a standstill marksman, Curry would likely lead the field; he hit 48.9 percent of his spot-up threes last season, according to Synergy Sports, in part because his release is too quick for opponents to reliably contest. Those shots, however, only accounted for 13 percent of Curry's total long-range attempts. Most of the time he's gunning for threes off the bounce, which isn't only a far more difficult shot -- but a far more useful one.
What makes Curry so lethal is that he demands the same, concerted attention well beyond the three-point line as he does inside it. Teams that don't show on Curry pick-and-rolls all the way out to the arc are surrendering clean looks to a deadly shooter. Keep in mind: Curry ranked eighth in three-point percentage last season while hoisting up a league-high 7.9 attempts per game.
Mark Jackson didn't always put Curry in the best positions to succeed last season, yet the Warriors were nonetheless an astounding 14.5 points better on offense per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor. That margin is wider than that between the NBA's best and worst offenses last season, and it was largely a product of Curry freewheeling as he could while forcing defenses into uncomfortable positions. It helps that he keeps growing as a passer. Curry commits a lot of turnovers as a result of seeing near-constant ball pressure and frequent traps, but he's also broadened the range of passes he's willing to throw. Over the course of his career Curry has become one of the league's better pocket passers -- a playmaking style that complements the threat of his pull-up jumper well.
The worst that can really be said of Curry is limited to the defensive end, where he works hard but suffers for his slight frame. Curry can be wiped out by a particularly solid screen or bumped off course by a mediocre one. As much as he'll try to keep up, Curry will often fall behind just enough to give his mark a clean look at the rim. He's also not the most intuitive in terms of keeping in front of his man off the dribble, and has neither the reach nor athleticism to really smother an opponent's shot. These limitations are manageable. Curry's team can slot him against the least threatening of three perimeter players, a trio which in most cases contains some spot shooter type. Golden State manipulated matchups as necessary last season and ended up with the third-best defense in the NBA. What Curry takes away on defense can be reasonably obscured. What he offers on offense, on the other hand, can revolutionize a team's play and can be found nowhere else. — R.M.
7Kevin Love, CavaliersForward | Age: 25
6-10, 243 pounds
Last year: No. 13
• 26.1 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 4.4 APG, 45.7 FG%, 37.6 3P%
• 27 PER, 14.3 Win Shares, 5.1 RAPM
To blame Love for what became of the Timberwolves last season is to miss the point entirely. During Love's time on the floor, Minnesota registered the net rating of a top-10 team. It was when Love sat that the Wolves so often fell to pieces.
Love's credentials as a star really shouldn't be subject to wild skepticism at this point, and yet he is strangely regarded -- by fans and even by some in basketball operations -- as if he were unproven. Instead, we find that Love is the only player in the last decade to average 26 and 13, which he has done twice (2013-14; 2010-11). Stretch back through the last 20 years of NBA history and the only other player to do so was Shaquille O'Neal. Just because Love played terrific basketball for a team that barely found its way to national broadcasts doesn't mean his performance should be disqualified. Good, superstar-level basketball was being played in Minnesota last season, even as Love's teammates did him a disservice and NBA fans at large focused their attention elsewhere.
Neither will be the case next season. Love will encounter entirely new levels of success and attention in Cleveland, likely to the form of lazy, prewritten narratives regarding his "learning how to win." But Love has been rolling for years now, especially since coming into his own as a shot creator. One doesn't hit 26.1 points on 18.5 field goal attempts per game without the ability to manufacture offense, which Love does both inside and out. Working the ball into Love in the post yields a solid return via hooks, floaters, and turnaround jumpers. Getting the ball to Love on the move allows him to leverage the threat of a quick shot to create open driving lanes.
While wielding that power, Love has no need to dominate the ball. He'll put up shots and dictate offense, yet nowhere along the way will he grind down his team's execution by surveying or over-dribbling. Love is a willing, capable passer beyond the breathtaking outlets -- the kind of star who trusts the ball to come back to him. As put aptly by Love's new coach, David Blatt: The ball has energy. Love feeds off that energy without stifling it, fueling team play while taking leadership in production.
His feel for the game isn't quite so natural on the other side of the floor. Love isn't much of a defender, though he was particularly unfocused over the latter half of last season. With little to play for, Love idled in transition defense and sought box-out position before following through on his defensive responsibilities. He did whatever he could to avoid fouling. It was selfish and lazy. Were Love evaluated under the assumption that behavior would continue, he would not sit in this particular slot. He can do better, though, as we've seen through stretches of more disciplined play or even Love's time with Team USA. He won't soon be an overwhelming positive to a team defense, but Love has the potential -- between mobility and defensive rebounding alone -- to someday register as a mild positive. Getting out of Minnesota should set Love back on that track, landing with the Cavaliers should make things that much smoother. — R.M.
6Anthony Davis, PelicansForward | Age: 21
6-10, 220 pounds
Last year: No. 41
• 20.8 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 51.9 FG%
• 26.5 PER, 10.4 Win Shares, -1.4 RAPM
In just two seasons Davis has made the jump to superstardom. First he established himself, putting together a solid rookie year while adjusting to the speed of the pro game. Then, just as quickly, the former No. 1 overall pick took the league by storm -- actualizing overnight in the form of a perfect NBA big. The style of the modern NBA favors power forwards and centers who can cover ground quickly, function outside the paint, and take on a variety of roles. Davis is an excellent prospect in all regards whose eventual trajectory points to the very top of these rankings.
Such a lofty goal is in view only because Davis has come so far on offense so quickly. Last season with the injury-riddled Pelicans, Davis was surrounded by a shallow, mismatched roster. Nonetheless, Davis averaged 20.8 points a night while registering the third-highest field goal percentage at his frequency of attempts and maintaining a Nowitzki-esque turnover rate. No case can be made that Davis' success was a product of his circumstances; this was a leap that Davis made for himself, having less help in terms of structure and personnel than any other player in our top 10.
Gone was the awkward rookie forced to stalk the baseline for potential lobs. Davis flashed newfound capability as a scorer last season, suited to convert all contorting manner of jumpers and runners. It's with reach that Davis finds open angles but by feathery touch that he somehow makes them. His play is, generally speaking, far from fundamental. His footwork veers from textbook instruction and his shot is anything but standard form. Davis plays in such a way, though, that those functional rules meant to govern average ballplayers don't much apply. He is very much his own entity -- his own brand of star meant to find success on his own terms. So much of what Davis does is inimitable, which is just part of why he compares so favorably with the best in the game.
Davis' quickness and length makes him the most accessible pick-and-roll target in the league. Throw a pass even vaguely in Davis' direction and he'll make it work. Put him in transition or a post-rebound scramble and he's just as effective and available. Every ball in the air seems within reach.
Davis also has the jumper to space more conventionally as well, if only out to 18 feet or so. That range is a sweet spot for Davis. If left alone he can catch and go immediately, finishing inside off a single dribble. If a defender is positioned between him and the rim, Davis can face up and knock down, especially from the top of the floor. He also has the handle and flexibility to handle whatever intermediate shot might be available, giving yet another option through which to command defensive attention. Keeping with Davis, move for move, is completely necessary.
In spite of all of Davis' offensive talent, his ceiling may be even higher on defense. One can see Davis picking up the art of interior defense one nuance at a time. When his stint with Team USA rolled around in August and September, Davis already looked more crisp than he had at the end of the regular season. The man is a 6-foot-10, long-limbed sponge who just spent his vacation training with other high-level players and learning under USA assistant Tom Thibodeau. His ascent is only a matter of when given he already has all of the physical tools to wreak havoc on that level. And to be fair, Davis is already a pretty terrifying defender. Opponents driving into his immediate vicinity hesitate and sometimes falter, both understandable results of squaring off against the most prolific shot blocker in the league last season.
We are now entering uncharted territory. Players of Davis' age are essentially never this good -- his PER was the highest ever for a 20-year-old player and there is still so much in his game that could be polished. Project limits on his growth at your own risk. — R.M.
5Tim Duncan, SpursForward/center | Age: 38
6-11, 250 pounds
Last year: No. 6
• 15.1 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 3.0 APG, 49.0 FG%
• 21.4 PER, 7.4 Win Shares, 3.1 RAPM
Go ahead, start rehearsing now. Start preparing your speech to your future grandkids that explains what Duncan accomplished in 2013-14, and try to make it sound like something that actually happened rather than a passage out of an ancient Greek myth.
The climactic scene takes place during Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City, where a 38-year-old Duncan finds himself without Tony Parker, in one of the most hostile environments in the league, with Serge Ibaka shadowing his every move and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook desperately trying to pull themselves back into a series that had seemed all but over. Oh, yes, it happened to be overtime, too, and coach Gregg Popovich had no choice but to play his aging great 39 minutes. How does Duncan respond? By scoring seven straights points – getting whatever he wants against Ibaka -- to send the Thunder home for the summer and silence the Chesapeake Arena. And then? Minutes later, he calmly predicts that his Spurs will revenge their 2013 Finals loss against the back-to-back champs. Five games and four blowout wins later, Duncan’s prediction came true.
Almost 20 years ago, Wofford coach Richard Johnson gave this speech before facing Duncan’s Wake Forest team: “Let me tell you guys about who you're playing tomorrow. Someday your six-year-old will ask you for a Tim Duncan jersey for Christmas. This is your chance to play a future NBA Hall of Famer, your turn to face the greatest player you will ever meet." Those words were delivered when Michael Jordan was still collecting championship rings, when Shaquille O’Neal had just arrived in Los Angeles, when Allen Iverson was in the middle of a Rookie of the Year campaign, when Anthony Davis was first sprouting a unibrow, and yet the gist of Johnson’s message could still be delivered by any NBA coach today.
Think it’s unfair to keep Duncan in the top five when he is the only player in the top 10 who is older than 30? A far greater injustice would be to rush this living legend out the door, to downplay his status – as of mid-June 2014, not five or 10 or 15 years ago -- as the best player on, by far, the league’s best team.
Duncan’s Spurs were so dominant last year that you need to adjust his stats not only to account for Popovich’s careful rotation management, but also for the fact that many of his team’s postseason games were over midway through the third quarter. Even so, he trailed only James in postseason Win Shares, his postseason average of 16 points and nine rebounds marked the best numbers of any big man who advanced to the conference finals, and he posted a comical +11.2 net rating for the duration of the playoffs. Even though he is years removed from his most prolific statistical seasons, Duncan’s impressive all-around per-36 minutes numbers – 18.7 points, 12 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.3 blocks – were matched by exactly zero players last season. There still isn’t another big man who packs as many different types of positive plays into his court time as Duncan does, despite his advancing age.
With each new season, there are fewer and fewer historical comparisons for Duncan’s late-career brilliance. At this point, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and John Stockton pretty much make up the entire list. The 14-time All-Star is fully within “wheels falling off” territory. There’s definitely a chance that age decline alone causes Duncan to drop out of the top 50 of SI’s Top 100 of 2016, something that absolutely cannot be said about anyone else in our top 10. There’s also a meaningful chance that Duncan isn’t included at all on next year’s list because he decides to call it a career. But those exact same things could have been said last September, and yet here he is, one ring richer, continuing to loom over the league with his Spurs as the early favorites to win the 2015 title.
Until Father Time intervenes, until retirement beckons, or until a young big man finally succeeds in knocking him off the pedestal for good, Duncan deserves every ounce of credit and praise that we can muster. The one part of the story that you won’t want to tell your grandchildren: “By the end, we were so caught up in how old Duncan was that we weren’t able to fully appreciate his greatness.” — B.G.
4Russell Westbrook, ThunderGuard | Age: 25
6-3, 200 pounds
Last year: No. 5
• 21.8 PPG, 6.9 APG, 5.7 RPG, 43.7 FG%, 31.8 3P%
• 24.7 PER, 5.2 Win Shares, 2.3 RAPM
Westbrook had to endure real adversity for the first time in 2013-14, the type that makes harsh media criticism and mocking social media memes look like child’s play. Three knee surgeries in less than a year is a terrifying concept for any professional athlete, but the fear factor was even greater for Oklahoma City’s three-time All-Star point guard. After all, his greatest attributes – speed, quickness, explosiveness, leaping ability, durability, drive, fearlessness, relentlessness – all are contingent upon two healthy knees. Although he was set for life financially thanks to a monster rookie extension, Westbrook’s status as one of the league’s premier superstars was suddenly and unexpectedly thrown into question, just as he was preparing to entire his prime on what had been a surefire championship contender.
Could Westbrook’s response to that career crossroads have reasonably been any better? While he missed nearly half of the regular season, Westbrook quickly reestablished himself as a big-time impact player, ranking second behind Chris Paul among point guards in PER and posting an excellent +8.3 net rating. Kevin Durant took home MVP honors in large part because he kept the Thunder afloat in Westbrook’s absence; that said, Westbrook’s reintegration into the lineup was just about seamless, and the Thunder’s winning percentage improved from .694 without him to .739 when Westbrook suited up.
The go-to critiques of Westbrook have centered on his shot selection, over-assertiveness, turnover problems, lack of three-point range, and occasional emotional outbursts. All of those issues remained part of Westbrook’s story last season to one degree or another, and yet he managed to render most of them moot through sheer force of will during the postseason. Indeed, it was Westbrook’s overall excellence in the playoffs that sealed his top-five status on the list: he saved the Thunder from elimination by the Grizzlies, he prevailed in a head-to-heat match-up with Chris Paul’s Clippers, and he put a real scare into the Spurs before ultimately falling in six games.
His postseason averages of 26.7 points, 8.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds are unprecedented over the last 50 years; only Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy have ever posted similar figures. He was the only player to register a triple-double in the 2014 playoffs, and he had three of them, including one in Game 7 against the Grizzlies and another in a must-win Game 2 against the Clippers. He hit pressure-packed shots and crazy four-point plays, he forced turnovers and he made plays in transition, he went off for 40 points, 10 assists and five steals in a stunning Game 4 victory over the Spurs, and he was, at times, even more responsible for Oklahoma City’s successes than Durant. When the Thunder’s offense lagged, it was usually Westbrook who found a way to kick it into gear. When the Thunder’s role players faltered, it was usually Westbrook who picked up the slack. When the Thunder’s backs were against the wall, it was usually Westbrook whose refusal to die set the tone. In sum, Westbrook’s run through the 2014 playoffs had the look and feel of the best, most significant basketball of his career.
One of the most overlooked defining questions heading into the 2014-15 season is whether Westbrook, who didn't miss a single game in his first five seasons, will be able to sustain good health for a full 82-game season and another long postseason run. If so, the Thunder have a very strong chance to be better than ever – a truly frightening proposition for the other 29 teams. — B.G.