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The Top 10 Players in the NBA

Nate Duncan ranks the top 10 overall players in the league, and explains why a certain Chicago Bull is not among them.

Nate Duncan

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The explosion in NBA media over the past 15 years has certainly been a good thing (when something results in me having a job, I tend to like it). The increased coverage and analysis has largely led to more NBA fans becoming much more informed, but has its downsides as well. One of these is the need to react nearly instantly to any good performance. This year, analysts and fans have repeatedly broken out their jump to conclusions mats to proclaim a great upheaval in the hierarchy of NBA players based on a good month of games.

Whether it’s Kevin Durant sewing up the MVP in January or Paul George as an MVP candidate in November, these judgments have largely proved to be premature. This trend has reached its zenith in the last week as Joakim Noah has been anointed a top-five MVP candidate.

I am from Chicago and love Noah’s game, but I do not think he is even a top-10 player, much less top-five. I decried this development on Twitter, and in response was asked who I would rank above him in the top 10.

Context can make such a ranking very difficult. However, I will interpret it using the following question: Which player would I pick if I were starting a team and needed to win a game tomorrow with average NBA talent around him? A guiding philosophy in this ranking is that efficiently creating shots for oneself and others is the premium skill in the NBA. Defense certainly matters, especially at the big positions, but the difference between the best and worst offensive players is far greater than on the defensive end. Finally, I will rank the players in tiers to represent points in the list where there is a big drop off.

Tier One

1. LeBron James

James’ recent explosion has confirmed that he is still the league’s best player. Taking his outstanding shooting, playmaking and finishing as a given, what most sets him apart is defense. James has proved capable of supporting small-ball units defensively with his crazy off-ball activity, which allows Miami to surround him with far more offense than other wings. In a winner take all game with him playing at full intensity on defense, he would still be my first pick.

2. Kevin Durant

Durant has at least made it a legitimate debate over who is the better player this season. He is now fairly obviously the best scorer in the league, while improving his playmaking, efficiency and off-the-dribble game. His defense has also improved in lockstep with the Thunder’s overall improvement, but he is still nowhere near the all-encompassing force on that end that James can be.  Nevertheless, he is far above the third player on this list.

Tier Two

3. Chris Paul

That is it for players who have no weaknesses, which means this just got really hard. A year ago, Paul was a fairly clear number three on this list, and statistically he has put up almost identical numbers to last year. He ranks fourth in PER and fourth in Kevin Pelton’s per minute win percentage, trailing James, Durant and Kevin Love in both categories. He also ranks third in Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus* (RAPM), per Stats for the NBA. RAPM is a plus/minus metric that purports to adjust for the quality of a player’s teammates and the opposition while he is on or off the floor to help remove external factors such as a poor backup or teammates from the plus/minus equation.

But subjectively, Paul has slipped, exhibiting less facility for getting into the paint while missing more games. While these numbers are not the be-all end-all, Paul ranks 52nd in drives per game and 52nd in team points per game scored off drives. He simply seems less capable of imposing his will on the game this year, and the team’s drop-off was not as large as would be expected when he missed time with a shoulder injury. Paul also is pretty much an average defender at point guard, with his quick hands counterbalanced by his short arms closing out on shooters. On the other hand, he also does not actually hurt the team’s defense, especially since he does not play a key position on that end.

So Paul seems ripe for replacement, but the problem is the candidates below him are equally flawed, great players though they are. Paul also deserves extra credit for the excellent clutch scoring of his teams over the years. As a perimeter player, he is more able to affect the game at crucial moments than his competition for this spot. It remains his for now.

4. Kevin Love

By traditional box score-based metrics, Love should be third on this list. He is a solid third in PER and first in win percentage. He also ranks fourth in RAPM. Love is a fantastic offensive player, posing a very unique problem for defenses with his abilities to post up and shoot 35 percent of his field goals from beyond the three-point arc while maintaining a 28 percent usage percentage.

So why isn’t he the clear number three? Defense. Love does lead the league in defensive rebound percentage, and helps the Wolves to the number six defensive rebound rate, but he is at best an average defender and D is much more important at the big positions. He is a poor rim-protector, and is a major reason teams shoot a ridiculous percentage inside against the Wolves. To truly optimize a team, he must be paired with a great shot-blocking center.

Another demerit for Love is Minnesota’s awful clutch performances this year, a major reason they are out of the playoff race. It is hard to say how much of that is bad luck, but it does matter that Love has yet to show the ability to push his team to great clutch performances the way Paul and James consistently have the last few years. That said, his statistical resume is far enough ahead of the competition that he cannot be dropped any lower than fourth on this list.

Tier Three

5. Stephen Curry

Tier three was just as hard to rank. Curry’s case boils down to the fact that having him in the game essentially creates a top-five NBA offense. The Warriors score at basically a league-best rate with him on the floor, and crater to well below league-worst without him. While some of that is due to the Warriors’ backup point guard woes, the team has one other clearly above-average offensive player: David Lee. Curry’s three-point shooting bends the entire defense to him and requires constant attention at all times, whether on pick-and-rolls or off the ball. Meanwhile, he has improved into one of the game’s best playmakers as well. On defense he has below average quickness, but very quick hands and decent size for the position to the point he is not an enormous liability. His individual statistics are not quite worthy of this fifth position (ninth in PER among realistic contenders and sixth in win percentage) but I believe the effect he appears to have on his team’s offense overshadows his slight deficit in the individual metrics.

6. Blake Griffin

Griffin ascends to this spot on the strength of his torrid play since Paul suffered his shoulder injury. He has improved nearly every aspect offensively, whether it is postups, midrange jumpers, free throws or pushing the ball in transition. With Paul out, Griffin showed the ability to carry the Clippers’ offense while maintaining excellent efficiency and upping his usage. Griffin’s strides have been equally impressive on defense, where he has shown the ability to play big minutes as a key cog on a unit that has been one of the league’s top ten since the early going.  He is not a stopper, but at least he has shown the ability to avoid being a detriment. The stats support Griffin’s case as well, as he ranks eighth among realistic contenders* for this list in PER and eighth in RAPM, though in the 20s in win percentage. Those numbers are depressed by how he did in the early season–based on how he is playing now he belongs in this spot.

*This excludes players like Andre Iguodala (RAPM) and Brook Lopez (PER) who rank ahead of Griffin but obviously should not be considered anywhere near top-10 players.

7. Anthony Davis

Based solely on his individual statistics, the 20-year-old Davis belongs higher on this list. He is fourth in PER, and fifth in win percentage. His midrange jumper became automatic almost overnight, and he is a terror in the pick-and-roll and on the offensive glass. The problem is his team’s performance. I am not one to harp on such matters unnecessarily–a player should not be punished for having poor teammates. But the Pelicans have disappointed this year, especially on defense despite Davis’ astronomical block and steal numbers. RAPM hates Davis, rating him below average on both ends, in similar fashion to how Kevin Durant initially struggled in plus/minus metrics. Durant eventually figured things out to become one of the league’s best, and I fully expect Davis to as well. But there is something to be said for being only 20. While Davis stuffs the box score, his inexperience manifests itself in his inability to improve his team’s performance, especially on the defensive end where execution of the scheme is paramount.

Tier 4

8. Chris Bosh

This may be the most controversial choice, but Bosh belongs here because of his versatility and the fact that he still has the skill to take on a much larger share of the offense than he does in Miami. His ability to play center on defense, blitz the pick-and-roll and shoot the lights out on offense is an essential part of the HEAT’s system. He has also returned to the four at times lately and proved an excellent choice as a stretch power forward. Bosh also retains the ability to post up and score, which would prove very useful on an average team with less threats than Miami. He possesses just about every big man skill, allowing one to build nearly any kind of team around him.

9. Russell Westbrook

Remember him? A guy many considered a top-five player in the NBA last year? Westbrook has had three surgeries since then, but on a per minute basis has been similar to the player he was a season ago. He ranks eighth in win percentage and 12th in PER among realistic contenders.  He has shown the ability to play even better than that in previous years. After a few more weeks to get back into it, this may appear too low for the UCLA product.

10. Dwight Howard

The Houston center just is not quite the force he was in Orlando on either end, although he continues to improve as he approaches two years removed from back surgery. He still no longer constitutes a top-five defense by himself, but he still has anchored a top-10 unit with only one other above-average defender in the starting five. Offensively, Howard has improved his free throw shooting from horrendous to really bad by utilizing a new routine, and his postup efficiency has improved as the year has gone on. The Rockets outscore teams by 7.7 points/100 with Howard on the floor, and only 0.4 when he sits. Despite his personal foibles, Howard is in a near-dead heat with Bosh for the status of best center in the game.

Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order

All of these players belong in Tier Four as well, as there is little to separate them from Bosh, Westbrook and Howard.

Paul George started the season playing like a top-five player, but his offense has regressed significantly toward last year’s levels. He is obviously a great defender, but he is not playing anywhere near a top-10 level on offense right now. That torrid start to the year, driven by unsustainable jump-shooting, looks like an aberration at this point.

Dirk Nowitzki ranks very highly on a per minute basis, but he only plays 32 minutes per game now and is a big part of the problem with Dallas’ near-awful defense.

James Harden has slightly regressed offensively this year, and he may be the second-worst defender on this list after Nowitzki.

Carmelo Anthony is having nearly his best year, but his poor defense and isolation-heavy game prevent him from cracking the top 10.

What about Joakim Noah?

So why isn’t Joakim Noah a top-10 player? Offense. Noah is kind of the center version of Rajon Rondo. His passing is very flashy, and he’s a great offensive rebounder, but those are his only two above-average offensive skills aside from screen-setting.* He shoots a poor percentage for a center and struggles to finish at the rim, especially off two feet. He also turns the ball over on a high 17.2 percent of his possessions, and his usage rate is below the league average. And Noah’s passing, while useful, is featured on this Bulls team more out of necessity. On a team with more shooters and creators, having the ball in his hands constantly would not be as favored an option.

* This shows in his offensive RAPM, which is negative. The Bulls do score much better on offense with Noah on the floor than off, but that is due in large part to his execrable backup Nazr Mohammed. RAPM adjusts for that fact.

Noah remains among the league’s best defenders and rebounders, but he is a middle-of-the-pack offensive center who kills a lot of possessions with turnovers and missed shots. That prevents him from being a top-10 player.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench

Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.

David Yapkowitz

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When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.

But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.

On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.

“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”

As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.

This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.

“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.

This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”

Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.

Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.

“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”

Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.

“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”

And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.

He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.

“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”

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NBA

NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

Will we see Rudy Gobert win another Defensive Player of the Year Award? Or will we have a new winner this year?

Dylan Thayer

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In the fourth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Rankings, Basketball Insiders continues to look at the players excelling on the defensive side of the ball. The Utah Jazz continues to be a powerhouse in the Western Conference amidst a surprising season, and they will still be well represented in these rankings. But there’s another newcomer to the list, an MVP-caliber player looking to lead his team to the NBA Finals. Ready to take look at the rankings? Let’s get into it.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 2)

The 28-year-old center out of France is one of the best defensive big men the game has seen in recent years – and this year is another example of that as Gobert has been the anchor of the best team in the NBA. Better, he has been a vital piece to their unanticipated success by taking part in all 35 of the Jazz games thus far.

Looking at Gobert’s numbers, he is still second in the league in blocks with 2.8 blocks per game, trailing only Myles Turner in that category.  Gobert has had three or more blocks in 18 games, even reaching four in 12 of them. 

In the defensive rating category, Gobert ranks third in the league with a rating of 103.0, per NBA Advanced Stats. This number is just enough behind Lebron James at 102.6 and teammate Mike Conley, who leads the NBA with a rating of 100.8. These three players are also in the top three for defensive win shares, with Gobert sitting in third with a DWS of 0.154. Gobert should be the current frontrunner as he has led the best team in the NBA on defense through the first half of the season. 

2. LeBron James (Previous: 4)

As a reminder, LeBron James has not made an All-Defensive Team since 2014. How about breaking that streak with a DPotY award as well? He very well could.

Without Anthony Davis, James is unarguably the tone-setter for the defense. The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 26 is a prime example of this. During that contest, James had 3 blocks and 4 steals as the Lakers won by 9. Furthermore, James has managed to average 1 block and 1.3 steals per game since the injury to Davis.

Notably, James ranks in the top three in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. James is just behind Conley in defensive rating at 102.6 compared to Conley’s 100.8 rating. Keep an eye on James’s defensive impact for the defending champs as the season continues to unfold.

3. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Embiid has been very neglected on this list, but now is the time for him to make his appearance. Yes, it is very high for a player to debut on this list, but he’s been on a tear as of late. 

In his career-high night on Feb. 19, Embiid went off for 50 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks in a matchup with the Chicago Bulls. This is the game that put the league on notice of Embiid’s brilliant season, both offensively and defensively, as he leads the first-place Philadelphia 76ers. As things stand right now, he’s averaging 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.

Taking a deeper dive into Embiid’s floor presence is what makes him stand out. He’s 13th in the NBA in defensive rating at 106.6. He also ranks 10th in defensive win shares with 0.131, per NBA Advanced Stats. The coaching change in Philadelphia has allowed Embiid to run the Sixers’ offense and, as things stand right now, he’s certainly in both the MVP and DPotY conversation. 

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 1)

Since an extended absence, Conley returned to make an instant impact in the Jazz lineup, averaging 2.0 steals over his last five games. The unexpected success has been due in large part to Conley’s improved play. Of course, Conley is high up on this year’s All-Star snub list, but his significant individual improvements won’t go unnoticed here.

Conley is currently tied for third in the league in steals per game at 1.5. He is also first in defensive rating with a rating of 100.8. Beyond that, he then ranks second in defensive win shares with 0.168. Without Conley, it’s hard to see the Jazz having the success they’ve enjoyed this year. Watch out for him as the season approaches the midpoint as he tries to become the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton during the 1995-96 season. 

5. Myles Turner (Previous: 3)

Despite a slip in the standings for the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner has been a very bright spot for the team defensively. He leads the league in blocks with 3.4 per game and has a pretty sizeable lead over Gobert in that category. Add in the fact that he is averaging 1.1 steals per game, it’s easy to see why Turner is so high in these rankings.

If the Pacers can manage to get things back in order amidst a sub-.500 record thus far, Turner could rise into the upper part of these rankings again.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: N/A)

While voter fatigue may hinder the chance of Giannis earning his second consecutive DPotY award, he should be in the conversation again. The Milwaukee Bucks are amongst the top three in the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to the stellar defensive play from the two-time MVP. 

It will be interesting to see where he finishes in the voting after the season’s end. Maybe he gets this award for a second-straight year, while the voter fatigue towards him takes place in the MVP ballots.

While these rankings have gotten competitive as of late, there’s still plenty of time for rising and falling in Basketball Insiders’ weekly Defensive Player of the Year rundown.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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