Who are the NBA's top 10 players? This season I must have heard at least 20 stars being mentioned routinely as "top 10" players in the league. It's an unofficial, unregulated and unwieldy list that everyone refers to and nobody seems to enumerate. Until today, that is.
The criteria for this list differs from other postseason awards. The MVP refers to the player who had the greatest impact on his team this season, and the All-NBA teams reward the top performances by position.
This top 10 list takes a broader view. Who are the most important players today, taking into account not just their performances this season but their abilities to dominate in a variety of ways? Consider this a comprehensive ranking of the best players in the NBA that goes beyond the narrow criteria of the annual awards.
10. Shaquille O'Neal, Heat
His doubters grow bolder in their criticisms as Shaq grows older, and even though he's approaching career lows in all categories this season -- 20.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 30.7 minutes -- the numbers are still impressive, and his advancing age (34) is still trumped by his size (7-foot-1, 300-plus pounds) and skills. If he can stay healthy and his teammates can be marshaled around him (by far the bigger if), O'Neal remains capable of driving Miami to a championship.
9. Paul Pierce, Celtics
No elite player showed more improvement than Pierce, the only player to lead his team in points (a career-high 26.8), rebounds (6.7), assists (4.8) and steals (1.4). He is shooting a career-best 47.3 percent in spite of playing with the weakest supporting cast of his career. The question now is whether the Celtics can throttle up their long-term rebuilding program to build a winner around 28-year-old Pierce while he's at his peak.
8. Dwyane Wade, Heat
Wade and Allen Iverson are the only players to rank in the top 10 in scoring (27.5 ppg in Wade's case), assists (6.8) and steals (1.9); the difference is that Wade's efforts have a positive impact on winning games while Iverson often seems to drain more energy from his team than he contributes. Wade should move into the top five of this list as Shaq ages and Wade further asserts himself as Miami's leader.
7. Steve Nash, Suns
The reigning MVP is the NBA's version of Doug Flutie: He dominates against bigger, stronger opponents by forcing them to surrender to his tempo. For those of us who rate team play ahead of one-on-one virtuosity, Nash is the most entertaining player in the league. No point guard is more effective at running an offense and creating mismatches than Nash, who adapted to the loss of Amaré Stoudemire by scoring more points (a career-high 19.1) while remaining the league leader in assists (10.5).
6. Elton Brand, Clippers
Surrounded by the first promising team of his seven-year career, Brand responded with a career-best 24.8 points per game to go with his typical 10.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. He's always scored in a variety of ways -- in transition, in the post or facing up -- but this year Brand proved that his numbers could drive a winning team.
5. Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves
This was a rough year for his team, yet Garnett retained his annual lead in the NBA's efficiency rating with a routine 21.8 points, 12.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Instead of being criticized for failing to drag this deeply flawed roster into the playoffs, he should be lauded for maintaining his impeccable standards in a hopeless environment: Selfish play isn't part of his repertoire.
4. LeBron James, Cavaliers
He'll join Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West as the only players to average at least 30 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists for a season. James will be the No. 1 player when he spreads his talent to the defensive end of the floor, but let's not be greedy -- these are amazing accomplishments for someone who should be finishing his junior year of college.
3. Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
Team leader Michael Finley left last summer, a year after the departure of league MVP Steve Nash, yet in their absence Nowitzki has elevated his scoring (26.6 ppg) and shooting (48.2 percent) to career highs while transforming the Mavericks into an elite team. He's on the verge of becoming Dallas' modern-day Larry Bird, the clutch big man who wins games in the most unorthodox ways.
2. Kobe Bryant, Lakers
The world's most talented player leads the NBA with 35.1 ppg, including a league-best 9.4 points in the fourth quarter. Nobody is more spectacular, whether dribbling through traffic or beating the buzzer from the three-point line. The question is whether a perimeter star such as Bryant can lead the league in scoring while leading his team to a championship level. Jordan is the only player to fulfill that paradox, but this season Bryant looked like he was embarking on the same high road as he single-handedly forced a lottery team into the playoffs.
1. Tim Duncan, Spurs
A foot injury scaled back his numbers, but they're still impressive enough (18.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 3.2 assists). Even more imposing than his individual stats is Duncan's impact on the league's most consistent program at both ends of the court. The team-first hierarchy that may bring a fourth championship to San Antonio works in all ways -- on the court and in the locker room -- because of him.