Despite Michael Jordan and other retired Hall of Famers repeatedly denigrating this league “easier” to play in than previous generations, the top players in the NBA today are as good as they have been in the history of the game. The guys I’m going to mention in this top-10 list are all box-office, franchise players. Part of the fun of being a fan of the game is ranking the best in the game, so with half of the NBA season completed and 2014 just underway, it’s time to start the debate.
The scary thing is that three big-name players won’t be here because of injuries: Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, and Rajon Rondo. The truth is that even if they were healthy, based on how they played just before they fell to injury, I’d say only one player on that list is worthy of consideration for top-10 and it’s probably the last person you would guess…Rajon Rondo. You can chalk me up to a believer that Kobe’s too old to be in this group and Rose’s body just can’t keep up with him. I’d be happy to be proven wrong but that’s a debate for when they return. Now onto the best in the league right now:
Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh, DeMarcus Cousins, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade
Because it took so long to decipher who was worthy of this elite status, I think it would be remiss to neglect the guys who are just below top-10. In no particular order, those five are all franchise players in themselves but just aren’t quite at that top-10 level right now. If he can get and stay healthy, one day Anthony Davis could be the best player in the game. That would be a scary proposition for the rest of the league. There are virtually no elite dual-threat offensive and defensive big men, the last of which was a perennial contender and repeated champion, Tim Duncan (who deserves mention in this discussion even at age 37). Pair a guy like AD with an elite guard and maybe you have Parker-Duncan 2.0.
I originally put Flash at no. 9 but as a fan of his, the truth is that he isn’t as good as the guy I put in his place.
Only Los Angeles and Orlando have a right to hate Dwight Howard—and even that is questionable. This guy is a great player and while he may have shot down a couple spots since my top 10 players of 2013 ranking, he’s still the best center in the game. The fact that he’s only no. 10 on this list shows that this has become a league trending away from the traditional center. His per 36 numbers are still incredible at 19 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks per game. Those bricks he throws up from the free throw line are a liability and while we can laugh that his field goal percentage (57) is higher than his free-throw percentage (54), Howard (and the guy at no. 9) still have the Rockets 10 games above .500 in a very deep Western conference.
The other half of the big duo in Houston, James Harden is a superstar scorer. His defense on the other hand…
But in a league where the solution to winning is often scoring more points rather than giving up less, only a handful of the players ahead of Harden on this list are more capable in that category. In fact, if you throw up Harden’s numbers the past two seasons against some of Kobe Bryant’s during his prime you might just be surprised how comparable they are…
The Knicks are terrible. This is a well-known fact. However, this doesn’t take away from just how potent Melo is offensively. 26 points, nine rebounds, 1.2 steals per game on 45 percent from the field and 85 percent from the line is about as good as it gets. Where Melo is often underrated is his mere 2.2 turnovers per game. You’d have to go down to the 15th ranked scorer, Arron Afflalo, to find another non-big man who turns the ball over as little as Anthony. To compound just how impressive that is, Melo uses (a third-highest in the league) 31 percent of his team’s offensive possessions when he’s on the court. You know he’s going to shoot, and you still can’t stop it. Maybe he won’t end up with the Bulls, like I proposed, but he sure is out of New York after this year.
The devastating meniscus injury proved exactly how valuable Russell Westbrook is to the Thunder…and his recent re-injury of that same right knee is worrisome. However, his track record of an injury-free college career as well as an injury-free NBA career up until the freak accident against Houston is great and as such I am not worried for him nor his team. OKC’s recent loss to the lowly Utah Jazz (without Westbrook) proves again that as great as Kevin Durant is, he cannot do it on his own. Westbrook’s 21 points, seven assists, and six rebounds per game are hard to make up for even though he is shooting only 42 percent from the field on 18 FGA per game. Wedged right in at no. 7, Westbrook can claim the throne of the NBA’s most explosive player.
I find it remarkable that a guy who is 6’3” and 185 pounds can be so effective as a scorer. If you look at all of the other great scorers in the game, most are substantially taller (LeBron, Durant, Melo, even Harden is 6’5”…) and bigger. But his smooth stroke is what makes him, in my opinion, the most exciting player in the game to watch. And the guy can’t even dunk!! Curry’s shooting numbers aren’t as eye-popping as they were last year, but that should not come as a surprise after the off-season loss of Jack and Landry, and the more recent Iguodala injury. I do expect his numbers to improve since Iguodala has returned and the grueling part of Golden State’s schedule is over. Although it is sometimes at the sacrifice of turnovers, he is also one of the most creative playmakers capable of keeping his Splash brother teammates involved with almost 10 assists per game.
The second-best two-way player in the league, the impossible argument can be made that PG24 deserves the NBA’s most improved player award for the second year in a row. In the span of two years, he elevated from average to star to superstar…that’s not normal. Moreso than any other player not named LeBron, he can do anything and everything on the basketball court. Although Indiana’s impressive record is inflated by the fact that they play in the Eastern conference, the truth is that the expected 2014 Eastern conference finals matchup will be a battle of two top-five players in the league. The main reason he doesn’t land higher in this ranking is because the four ahead of him are established elite players…come back to me after this season ends and maybe he’s climbed up a spot or two in my books.
If I were to draw up the perfect point guard…never mind, that’s not necessary because this guy is basically just that. Floor general, elite perimeter defender, playmaker, level-headed personality, scorer when he needs to be, reasonable outside shooter, and all in a smaller frame than even Steph Curry at 6’0” and 175. The Clippers will be in the heart of the fight for the Western conference if they can hold on while CP3 nurses his shoulder injury. With Doc Rivers and the best PG in the league, (at least until we can see what Rajon Rondo has to say about that) don’t sleep on Los Angeles.
Kevin Love’s loyalty to Minnesota thus far is impressive and also eerily familiar to two stars of this era, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, who played for subpar teams for too long. Miraculously, Minnesota is hanging around a .500 record in the West. Like LeBron deserved in Cleveland, you can thank Kevin Love for that. Even more frustratingly, that .500 record would be good for a four or five seed in the East. And like the Kevin that preceded him in Minnesota, Love’s legacy is likely tainted by the fact that he has played with insufficient supporting casts.
The most versatile big man in the game, what’s brought Kevin to the next level of superstardom is his passing. While averaging a career-high points per game, threes made per game, and FG percentage, he’s also nearly doubled his assists per game output. Adrien Kaeslin of Squeeze the Orange delved further into the nuances of his versatility as a passer but here’s a quick glimpse into what he can offer as a passer:
Seriously though, Durant has had been on another planet this season. The scoring leader had a four-game stretch in December where he put up 30 points on 61 percent from the field, 65 from THREE and 91 from the line. You can’t do that in NBA 2K14. Not only has he been putting up superhuman scoring numbers in the West but he’s also sporting career highs in rebounds, assists, and steals. Durant is the favorite to win the MVP and the clear second-best player in the league, but here’s an interesting thought experiment: put Durant on the Timberwolves and Love on the Thunder…could that answer change? It’s a lot like the Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan debate where what team you’re on matters more than you might think to our perception of an individual player.
Maybe he’s playing it a bit more conservative this year than previously but playing about 100 games in each of the past two seasons allows you to do that. In career low minutes per game, LeBron still averages 26 a game and the usual 7-and-7 assists and rebounds. The real transcendent number would be if he could up his 59 percent from the field to 60 even though almost 50 percent of his shots are from more than eight feet from the basket (per NBA.com/stats). He reminded everybody on Christmas that he’s still a freakish athlete who’s the best, and greatest, player in the NBA in 2014.