Monday, September 1, 2008

The 25 Best Players in the NBA Today

Well, the NBA season's been over for about two-and-a-half months, but we're still about a month away from the start of training camp for '08-09 - let's make a list! Just seemed like the right thing to do. Obviously, these things are never easy, and they're far from definitive - I realized even before I was done that I had probably already made some mistakes, that there were going to be some rankings I myself would regret, some guys I left off that I would wish I had put on...and accepted it. I wasn't going to torture myself. Overall, though, I think it's a very solid list - you (or I, tomorrow or a week from now or a month from now) may look at it and think, "This guy should be ahead of that guy," or "That guy should be ahead of this guy," or "Where is this guy?," or whatever. But I believe I have everybody in the very close proximity of where they belong; I'm not way off with any player. Anyway, enjoy. And obviously, argue amongst yourselves and talk about how stupid I am.

P.S. I had already started the rough draft for my list before SLAMonline kicked off their Top 50 with Kevin Durant. So whatever mean names you call me, please don't call me a jocker. You can call me anything except a jocker (and late for dinner).

P.S.S If this list feels only half-done, I'm sorry. But I couldn't find the inspiration to make a Top 50 all by myself. I guess I'm not made of the same stuff Stan McNeal is.

1. Kobe Bryant, G, Lakers - Even after a disappointing showing in the Finals, Mamba still stands as the most complete basketball player in the world. Flawless fundamentals, historic scoring ability, best all-around perimeter defender since Scottie F. Pippen. He's the best. Although...

2. LeBron James, F, Cavaliers - ...this guy is gaining fast, and it's only a matter of time before he takes the no. 1 spot. His progress feels inevitable, but it's still fun to watch. There's never been another like LeBron: at 6-9 and 260 pounds (from his own mouth) of chiseled bulk, LeBron is like a brawnier, faster, more agile version of the '96 Shawn Kemp - only if Kemp was a perimeter player who ran the offense from the top and seamlessly balanced scoring and passing. LeBron is able to simultaneously assume the roles of scorer and facilitator: he's constantly looking for his teammates and keeping them involved, while still putting up 30 a game. He's also a rapidly improving defender who plays with a nightly (quiet) competitiveness and intensity equaled by few in the game. And no one - NO ONE - has ever done more with such a mediocre team. His unselfish style of play lifts the performances of his very below-average teammates, and has allowed Cleveland to compete neck-and-neck with the far more talented powerhouses of the Eastern Conference the past three seasons (they went to Game 7 against a 64-win Detroit team in 2006, beat them in 2007 to make the Finals, and then went to another Game 7 against 66-win eventual champion Boston this season).

By simply adding good-but-not-great point guard Mo Williams this offseason, the Cavs should now be considered the favorites to win the East again next year - and as a Lakers fan, I want no part of LeBron James in a seven-game series. You could even say I rue the day.

He turns 24 on the last day of the year.

3. Chris Paul, G, Hornets - One of the things that amazes me so much about the great young players in the NBA is just how good they are at such young ages. They're not just great players, they are superstars, amongst the best in the game with very little experience. Take Paul, for example. He was 22 for the entire '07-08 regular season. Yet he was so in control of the game at all times, so thoroughly dominant - other than throw Deron Williams and that boulder-sized chip that sits on his shoulder (from being unfairly cast in Paul's shadow) on him, what can you do to slow down Chris Paul? Nothing, right? He does whatever he wants to do. He's not perfect, get the point.

4. Tim Duncan, F/C, Spurs - For no athlete is immune to Father Time, even the great Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental showed signs of definite slippage in the playoffs last year. Against the Hornets in the second round, Duncan had significant trouble with the long arms and athleticism of Tyson Chandler(a good but not great defender who probably would've been no trouble to Duncan four years ago). Timmy can't get the same seperation on his faceup drives anymore - I seemed to notice him shooting more and more of those awkward, one-legged fallaways against Chandler in that series. Sure, Duncan will still have his way with big men who can't defend (like Pau Gasol in the following series against the Lakers) or guys who don't have the physical tools to make him take difficult shots, but guys like Chandler will likely give him trouble from here on out.

With that being said, of course, Duncan is still an exceptionally smart player, a great defender and passer with stellar court awareness on both ends of the floor, not to mention the man with the deepest array of low-post moves in the game. So he's still a top-5 player. For now.

5. Kevin Garnett, F, Celtics - Kevin won his first championship last year, and while as a Los Angelino I was very disappointed that my team lost, I still felt happy for him. By all accounts, Kevin Garnett is a good man - loyal, hardworking, and as real as they come. We need more athletes like him.

On the court, Garnett has never been a truly dominant scorer - he simply lacks the proper mindset and will to take over games. But he is still skilled at putting the ball in the basket - he has range out to twenty feet and has a deadly turnaround jump shot along the baseline that is one of the game's signature moves. His rebounding slipped last year - from 13 boards per 40 minutes in '06-07 to about 11 last year - but he is still very strong in that area. He is also the very best defensive player in the league, and one of the best passing big men ever. At 32 he's no longer the freakish athlete he once was, but his smarts and experience more than make up for it.

6. Dwight Howard, C, Magic - The best rebounder in the league topped 20 points a game for the first time last year. He is also an emerging defensive force - he averaged more than two blocks last year, and with his ridiculous leaping ability there is no shot he cannot get to. Howard is an amazingly athletic big man with a body made for basketball - he's like a more powerful David Robinson. And as good as he is, at 22, he will only get better.

7. Dirk Nowitzki, F, Mavericks - Dirk played more like Dirk after the new year, and was the only Maverick who showed up in Dallas' first round series loss to the Hornets. He's back. Perhaps the most unique 7-0 in league history (think about it), Dirk is the best shooting big man ever. He doesn't rebound enough and is only an average (at best) defender, but he has become a pretty decent passer in addition to his special scoring ability. His hair is long again, and I look forward to a career year from the 30-year old Nowitzki next year.

8. Deron Williams, G, Jazz - Surely some of you will argue that No. 8 is too high for D-Will - not surprisingly, as Williams is the most underrated player in the league. Big and burly with an improving outside shot (39.5 percent from three last year) and splendid passing skills, Williams is the pure point guards pure point guard: he thinks pass first, but he also knows when to take over the game. 19 points and 11 assists per on 51 percent shooting last year. CP3 is better overall, but not by very much.

9. Steve Nash, G, Suns - He turns 35 next year, but last we checked, he was still Steve Nash: 17 points and 11 assists on 50, 47, and 91 percent last year.

10. Amare Stoudemire, F/C, Suns - Sure, he's one dimensional - he doesn't rebound enough, doesn't play defense, doesn't pass. But when your one dimension (scoring) is so good that it makes you the most unstoppable big man in the game,'re one of the 10 best players in the league.

11. Dwyane Wade, G, Heat - You don't know how hard it was for me to leave him out of the top 10. But he's missed 31 games in each of the last two seasons. Fair or not, I put him here because of how good he is when he's healthy (top-3). And consider his performance in Beijing a warning to the NBA.

12. Carmelo Anthony, F, Nuggets - The second best pure scorer in the league behind Bean - just a natural at putting the ball in the hoop. Inside and outside, facing up and back-to-the-basket, quick and strong - once he starts hitting threes consistently, I don't know what's going to happen. Also averaged a career 7.4 boards a game last year, and he's made strides as a passer. The second most underrated player in the league. He's 24.

13. Paul Pierce, G/F, Celtics - You never know how good a player is until you get to watch him night in, night out in a seven-game series. And after watching Pierce slice up the the Lakers in the Finals, let me tell ya, I had no idea Paul Pierce was that good. Great defender, very good ballhandler and passer - did you know Paul Pierce had that kind of floor game - great scorer. I love Pierce's game offensively - unlike McGrady and Kobe, who are totally fluid and skilled and make it look like basketball just comes natural to them, Pierce is kind of rough around the edges. He kinda stumbles around sometimes, he doesn't have the easiest handle, he's a good but not great athlete, etc. But it's the untidiness of his game, the fact that it doesn't look pretty or effortless, that makes it so beautiful to me.

Did that last paragraph sound simpish?

14. Tracy McGrady, G/F, Rockets - Now 29, he's not as good as he was at 23 (when he peaked as a player) - chronic back problems have relegated him to mostly jump shots (hence the low shooting percentages) and caused a dip in his rebounding numbers. But he's a smart player, an exceptional passer, and when he's feeling it he's as unstoppable as ever. Also a great teammate.

15. Chris Bosh, F/C, Raptors - I almost put him in the top 10 because of his comedic exploits, before coming to my senses. Bosh is big, skilled, and athletic, but he has to start blocking more shots, and statistically, he hasn't gotten any better in three years.

16. Gilbert Arenas, G, Wizards - Top 10 when healthy, I guess - but even when healthy, he's madly inconsistent. Also needs to move to the two, like A.I. did under Larry Brown years back.

17. Yao Ming, C, Rockets - I would never bet on him staying healthy for a full season. He's too big. But when healthy, he's the best big man ever over 7-2.

18. Carlos Boozer, F, Jazz - A walking, breathing 20 and 10 - not much else, but still, a walking, breathing, 20 and 10.

19. Allen Iverson, G, Nuggets - The NBA's biggest anamoly: 26 points, 7 assists, 46 percent from the field, 2 steals a game last year on a 50-win team - at 32. To put that in perspective, Isiah Thomas retired at 32. Then again, doesn't he seem almost irrelevant now.

20. Baron Davis, G, Clippers - Reached his full potential under Nellie. Now to see what he'll do back in a more traditional offense.

21. Manu Ginobili, G, Spurs - When you consider how good he really is, how much of an impact he has on a game, and how important he has been to such a successful team - I'll just come on out and say it: Emanuel David Ginobili is the best sixth man EVER.

Well, other than Havlicek.

22. Tony Parker, G, Spurs - He's not a good defensive player and he 's not really a pure point, but he can get wherever he wants to get on the court at any time, he's the perfect pick-and-roll point guard (one of the main strengths of the team over the years when you consider that Duncan is the perfect pick-and-roll big man), and he's been the starting point guard on three championship teams in the last six years. He runs his damn team, and he runs it well.

23. Pau Gasol, F/C, Lakers - As frustrating as he can be at times (like, the Finals for example), he saved the Lakers season, and other than Duncan, no 7-0 brings more to the table offensively. Big, long, skilled, and smart - if only he didn't let people push him around and could hold on to the ball. Keep your position and hold on to the damn ball, Pau!

24. Ron Artest, F, Rockets - One of the best end-to-end players in the game. Just a beast. Only problem is that he tends to think he's The Man, when really, he's a world-class supporting player. Don't try to carry the offense in Houston, Ron. Just play your part; your team has a chance to be downright scary.

25. Caron Butler, F, Wizards - The poor man's Pierce.

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