Hey guys, I was listening to Sirius XM's NBA radio station and they spent a good chunk of the afternoon discussing SI.com's Top 100 NBA players of 2015. I thought it would be fun for us to do sort of a roundtable discussion on who we thought would be the 20 best players in the league this year, based on whatever criteria each of us believes would determine such a list.
I'll start out with mine. Here is how I frame what makes someone rank highly on my list, in order:
- Importance on his team/how much he "carries the load" (also factoring in durability and reliability)
- Dynamicism (does he have one or two elite skills that he uses to take over games?)
- All-around skillset (less important than the first two: James Harden is better than Nicolas Batum, even though Batum is streets ahead of Harden as a defender and is a very capable offensive player in his own right)
So here's my list:
- LeBron James - No-brainer.
- Kevin Durant - Also a no-brainer.
- Anthony Davis - Oh baby! After the top two this thing is wide open. To a degree, 3-10 or 3-12 are all pretty interchangeable. Davis is here because he is probably the second-most complete all-around player in the league after LeBron, though he is considerably less polished. I'd guess two or three years from now, he'll be the most valuable two-way player in the league.
- Joakim Noah - I was really close to putting Joakim at #3 because he was so damn good in the face of adversity last season. It's crazy to think that a guy can be, at one time, the best rebounder, passer, shot blocker, post scorer, post defender, clutch player and highest energy player on a team, especially when the team is dealt a huge blow of an injury when Derrick Rose went down. I've always been a big fan of his, but even I wouldn't have believed what he did during the regular season last year if I wouldn't have seen it. I hope, for his sake, he's able to shoulder a little less of the burden on the team with Rose coming back and the acquisition of Pau Gasol.
- Blake Griffin - I think the general perception is that Chris Paul is the best player on the Clippers, but I think last year showed that Blake might be a more vital cog in their system. He did a great job carrying the team during Chris Paul's absence last year and as a prototypical power forward, he is a player almost without flaws. He could be a much better shot-blocker considering his athleticism, and his range is pretty limited, but he makes up for that by finishing well inside and taking a lot of his shots (about 40%) at the rim. Really durable and plays with energy every night.
- Dwight Howard - The flaws here are obvious. FT%, inability to finish inside, limited shooting range, turnovers, apparent unwillingness to play to his strengths (pick-and-roll finisher vs. posting up). His impact everywhere else is still pretty stout. He's noticeably slower and less athletic since his back surgery, so his shot-blocking and rebounding percentages and totals have both dropped to their lowest levels since about his sophomore season, but he is still head-and-shoulders above the other centers in the league. He was a much bigger factor in Houston's success than he was given credit for, and a bigger factor than Harden for sure.
- Russell Westbrook - He's the most dynamic, explosive point guard in the league. I really hope that he eventually gets his own team so we can see what he could do as the undisputed #1 option on his team. I actually think, some of the time, he flat-out looks more confident and composed than Durant does and plays with a little more killer instinct. He just doesn't have the same skillset (especially in terms of efficiency) and size that Durant does.
- Steph Curry - The best shooter in the league, and he averages 8.5 APG? Wow. And I don't think we'll ever see another off-the-dribble shooter as good as Curry.
- Chris Paul - He'd be much higher if he could stay healthy. In nine seasons, he has played 75+ games only five times (including playing 60/66 games in 11-12). That, combined with his strange lack of playoff success (three series wins) makes me think that he's a little overrated. When he's healthy and fully engaged, I think he's one of the four or five best PGs ever. But I see too many close games that he loses focus in the 4th quarter and shoots his teams out of it.
- Kevin Love - I probably like Kevin Love's game more than anyone else on this board because I've watched almost every one of his games. He's not as good a shooter as Dirk was in his prime (or today) but he's close. And he's a better rebounder and passer. I think he's going to be a great fit next to LeBron, even if his raw statistical production drops. He's going to be feasting off open looks from LeBron and Kyrie Irving and will be a little less exposed defensively with better teammates. I expect him to get close to that 50%/40% mark, though his FT% won't ever be that close to 90. If he adjusts to being the #2/2a option offensively and devotes his extra energy to crash the boards even harder, I think he could be All-NBA first team next season. For his sake I hope he wins a couple of championships but for our sake I hope that's a few years in the future.
- Dirk Nowitzki - No superstar scorer in NBA history has ever played within himself the way Dirk does. Never takes bad shots. Never fails to make the right pass out of double teams. Best mid-range shooter in the league and it isn't even close (maybe the best in history). Only this low because he isn't much of a rebounder anymore and doesn't defend very well outside of the post and on drives, mostly due to age/lack of lateral quickness rather than lack of effort/awareness.
- LaMarcus Aldridge - I don't have a lot to say about Aldridge, though I really admire him as a player. I guess I'd say that the best way to describe him would be he is 85% of the offensive player that Dirk is and about 75% of the defensive player that Dwight Howard is. He obviously carried the overachieving Blazers to the second round of the playoffs last season in a brutal Western Conference, but I think that had a lot more to do with what James Harden didn't do than what Aldridge did (LMA was great for the first two games, good in game four, and horrible in the other three games).
- Chris Bosh - I give Bosh a lot of credit for his play over the past four seasons with Miami. He made an incredible individual sacrifice and really accepted his role as the third offensive option, even though I think he's been better than Wade for at least three years. He almost seamlessly went from a 24/11 guy to a 16/7 guy, and totally transformed his offensive game in the process. I expect him to get right back to that 20/10 range next year and to carry what is an otherwise awful Miami Heat team to a top 4 seed in the East. If he does that, it will be almost unprecedented and I hope that gets the appreciation that it deserves.
- Carmelo Anthony - I ripped Melo pretty aggressively over these past couple of years over his failure to make his teammates better on the Knicks, but after some reflection I think I've been a little too hard on him. Last season was probably the best all-around season of his career, despite his total lack of support from his teammates. The defensive awareness on the Knicks was laughable last season, but he's a very solid man-to-man defender on the perimeter and post. I think the whole Skip Bayless "make your teammates better" argument is a little ignorant when regarding what is the ultimate team sport: if you don't have the horses in the top and middle of your roster, you just can't win. I don't know if the Knicks are even a playoff team this season (probably are with Indiana likely dropping out of the picture) but I expect Melo will have another great individual season.
- Marc Gasol - He's the best defensive center in the league. Also a very good offensive player, though he doesn't seem to have the mindset of a consistent offensive centerpiece. He fills his role extremely well offensively, and the Grizzlies are almost immeasurably better on both ends of the floor when he's playing. I don't know if the Grizzlies are a playoff lock this year, but Gasol, if healthy, will be a dominator again.
- Al Jefferson - I was a strong advocate against the Mavs going after Al a couple of years ago when he was a free agent, mostly due to his lack of fit next to Dirk, but he was fantastic for the Bobcats last season. Really took over as a leader in the locker room and on offense. He'll never be a shotblocker, but as a big man he gives you just about everything else. Bullies opponents on the block and seems to have a decent faceup game as well. I don't know if he will ever be the best player on a contender (because he's not a defensive anchor as a center and is too big to play PF in today's game) but he can be the best- or second-best player on a second tier team for sure. I'm a little bummed that McRoberts left for Miami because I thought those two complemented each other really well, but Al is the kind of guy you can build almost any sort of offense around.
- Tim Duncan - I never really know where to rank Duncan and Parker because those two have always had arguably the best coach in the league and are usually part of the most well-built roster. I tend to think that he isn't a top-20 player anymore but when I really sit down and try to list 20 guys that are better, I can't do it. Maybe it's kind of a lifetime achievement award, but this spot just seems right.
- DeMarcus Cousins - This is kind of funny... I didn't realize it until I was checking over this list a second time but having old-*** Duncan and not-yet-in-his-prime DMC right next to each other makes a lot of sense. In terms of raw offensive ability and overall statistics, DMC is a lot like prime Duncan with worse shot selection. But after that, you look at the off the court stuff, the lack of composure on the court, and his lack of career success, and the two guys couldn't be any more different. I was a big supporter in trying to trade for Cousins a couple of years ago when he was rumored to be on the block, but with his quality of play and the huge contract extension, he just isn't available anymore. He seems like the sort of guy that could be a top-5 player if he had the right coach and organization around him, but the reality is that he is currently part of one of the most dysfunctional franchises of the past decade. I really hope he eventually has the right coaching staff and supporting teammates so we can kind of find out how good he can be.
- Kyle Lowry - I'm skeptical of him because he's had so many nondescript seasons, but if he can play at the level he did last year again, the Raptors probably got a huge steal in free agency. I love his defensive effort and his desire to lead as an offensive player, but I do think that he could play a little smarter at times with his defensive gambles and shot selection. If he could shore that stuff up he'd be right up there in the conversation for the best two-way PG in the league.
- James Harden - I didn't want to include him on this list because I think he's kind of a loser: doesn't give a modicum of effort on defense, takes awful shots, flops an enraging amount, and disappears in the playoffs. I hate watching him play because of all of that. But offensively, he carries as much of a burden as any player in the league but LeBron. He handles the ball on almost every possession, has to take a lot of bail-out shots, and is going to be counted on to be the primary playmaker for Houston next year. I actually think there's a pretty decent chance that the Rockets are in freefall mode next season. But Harden's prowess as a scorer and ability to "initiate contact" (a phrase I hate but nonetheless a skill that matters in today's NBA) are as good as it gets in the league.
Just missed the cut - Tony Parker, Paul Millsap, Goran Dragic, John Wall, Andre Drummond
Disqualified due to recent injury history (but would usually make it if healthy) - Paul George, Al Horford, Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Brook Lopez
Let's have some fun with this. WHAT SAY YOU?