NBA

Head to Head: Third-Best NBA Player?

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LeBron James and Kevin Durant are widely regarded as the top two players in the NBA today. But who is the third-best player in the league? We asked Basketball Insiders’ Nate Duncan, Moke Hamilton and Eric Pincus to weigh in:

Chris Paul

Determining the third-best player in the NBA after LeBron James and Kevin Durant is one of the more vexing exercises in the NBA right now. When I ranked the league’s top 10 players back in March, number three was the one I struggled with the most. Eventually, I settled on Chris Paul. That article ranked players by tiers, and the only two players in the second tier were Paul and Kevin Love.

Since then, Paul has done nothing to lose that spot. Despite struggling through a hamstring injury in the series against Golden State, he managed a much higher playoff PER than Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin, the playoff participants in the next tier below him.

Paul also authored one of the best games in playoff history in Game 1 against Oklahoma City. In that game he had 32 points on only 14 shots, going 8-9 on threes with 10 assists and only two turnovers in a mere 27:44. He added seven hockey assists as well, notable because the league leader (Paul himself) averaged a mere 2.2 per game in the regular season. Overall during the playoffs, Paul created 31.3 points per 48 minutes with his assists alone. His greatness was further confirmed by the fact that the Clippers fell apart whenever he left the court.

The only other contender for this spot right now in my eyes is a player who ultimately bested Paul and the Clippers in round two, Russell Westbrook. Back in March, I ranked Westbrook ninth as he had recently returned from a third surgery on his right knee in less than a year. But I added this caveat: After a few more weeks to get back into it, this may appear too low for the UCLA product.

That indeed is what happened. Among realistic contenders for this third spot, Westbrook has the highest playoff PER at 24.9. For reference, James is at a historically great 31.1, a number bested by only 10 individual player seasons in NBA history. Three belong to James himself, the others to Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. This is even more remarkable considering James did it against three top-10 defenses during the regular season, including the Pacers’ top-ranked unit. James’ 31.1 would be the ninth-best single-season playoff PER of all-time. By contrast, Durant checks in with a Tony Allen-addled 23 PER. Oh, and a little perspective for Kobe Bryant fans: Bryant’s best single-season playoff PER ranks 77th all-time. His second-best playoff PER ranks 142nd all-time.

Westbrook is averaging 24.6 points per 36 minutes, offensive rebounding 8.2 percent of OKC misses (a lower end power forward level), and contributing massive clutch plays including three key steals in games with under a minute remaining and draining all three free throws to tie Game 5 against the Clippers late.

For those who claim Westbrook shoots too much, he does lead the playoffs in usage percentage, but is second among players with more than seven games played by assisting on an estimated 40.5 percent of Thunder baskets when he is on the floor. And the Thunder offense has collapsed without him, scoring 19.4 less points per 100 possessions when he sits. This is in part due to Scott Brooks’ puzzling habit of sitting both Westbrook and Durant at the same time, which should never happen in the playoffs.

Despite Westbrook’s wonderful playoffs, Paul has the edge based on his superior last few regular seasons. But given Paul’s advancing age for a player who relies on quickness more than most, we could well have a new third-best player in the league next year. Love, Westbrook and Anthony Davis would seem the most likely candidates to get there.

– Nate Duncan

Blake Griffin

LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the top two individual players in the NBA. Third on the list isn’t quite as clear, but Los Angeles Clippers Blake Griffin emerged this past season as a true candidate.

Griffin has always been more than just a dunker.  While he may be the league’s most explosive player at the basket, Griffin’s all-around game improved under head coach Doc Rivers.

His 24.1 points a game this past year was a career-high.  He improved one of his greatest weaknesses, free-throw shooting, to 71.5 percent — a dramatic step up from 52.1 percent in his second season.

Los Angeles is fortunate to have two MVP candidates on the roster, but Griffin truly emerged when Chris Paul sat out 18 games with a shoulder injury.  Paul might be a top point guard, and in consideration for the NBA’s third-best player, but Griffin carried the Clippers to a 12-6 record while Paul was on the mend.

That’s a 55-win pace.  The Clippers won 57, bowing out in the second round to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Griffin improved his face-up jumper just enough to force teams to guard him slightly closer, giving the All-Star forward additional room to attack the basket in the post and off the dribble.

Armed with the experience and knowledge that he can carry his team, Griffin will only improve next season.

With a few roster tweaks, and no Donald Sterling drama taking away from the product on the floor, the Clippers should be a contender next season.

– Eric Pincus

Anthony Davis

If it’s not Chris Paul and it’s not Blake Griffin, who then is the player for which a case can be built that he is the league’s third best player behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James?

It would have to be a player who impacts both sides of the basketball court, so Joakim Noah (more of a defensive stalwart) and James Harden (an offensive maestro) are difficult to make a case for. The same can be said for Carmelo Anthony and Stephen Curry.

After their flaming out against the Miami HEAT and his overall ineffectiveness during the most critical times of their season, Paul George is not making my list. I’ll wholly cut against the grain and go with one of the more seemingly impactful youngsters this league has seen perhaps since James entered the league back in 2003.

Anthony Davis, I’m looking at you.

Is Davis the third-best player in the NBA? Clearly, whether or not that is true depends on how an individual defines the term “best,” as it is a superlative that is wholly subjective. But objectively speaking, it is difficult to argue with what Davis has already shown after playing just 131 career games.

This past season, en route to being named an NBA All-Star in just his second year, Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game while shooting 51.9 percent from the field. From the beginning, with his impeccable timing, he was expected to make meaningful contributions on the defensive end, but it is his offensive repertoire that has caught the entire league by surprise.

Athleticism aside, Davis has shown a better-than-advertised ability to put the ball on the floor and create mid-range and low-post opportunities for himself. He is a good catch-and-shoot player out to up to 18 feet and has been so good, so quickly.

Although a 34-48 win record is not worthy of accolades, that the New Orleans Pelicans played a gross majority of the season without key contributors Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson among others and happen to be playing in the NBA’s Southwest Division means something. The Southwest Division was the only division in the entire league that had three teams win 50 games. And the Dallas Mavericks—who ended up sneaking into the playoffs out West as the eighth seed—won 49 games.

As for Davis, the sky truly is the limit. Although one could argue that Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or even Dirk Nowitzki are still “better” players than Davis, and although many may prefer any of the aforementioned veterans for one game, I have seen enough from Davis to give the second-year player the anointment of being the third-best player in the league, as controversial as that may be.

In part, it is due not only to what he has already shown as a professional, but also where we believe he will end up when its all said and done. For most young NBA stars, the third year is the charm. As Davis completes his second year in the NBA and we think about his junior year down in New Orleans, I can certainly say that the only other two players I would rather have on my roster, especially for the long haul, are Durant and James.

– Moke Hamilton

Who do you think is the third-best player in the NBA? Leave a comment below.

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