Last year around this time, I debuted the maiden version of my top-10 players in the NBA. At that point, the top tier clearly consisted of only two players, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. While Durant would go on to win the MVP, most at that time felt James was the clear best player in the league.
What a difference a year later. Seven of the 14 players in the top four tiers (including honorable mentions) have completely dropped off the list. Of those, five have been felled by injuries. What’s more, nobody has been as good this year as James and Durant a year ago.
Despite those disappointments, the intrigue has only grown. The 2014-15 season features perhaps the most fascinating MVP race ever, with at least five players able to make a legitimate argument. This list features a slightly different inquiry, as less weight is provided for minutes and games played than in an attempt to measure “value” over the course of the season.
To refresh, the list is created as an answer to the following question: Which player would I pick if I 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. On to the rankings.
- Stephen Curry
The Warriors’ point guard has statistically been the league’s best player on a per-minute basis this year. He leads the league in RPM and Kevin Pelton’s Win Percentage, while ranking third in PER*. While he is not a lockdown defender and can be blown by in a few matchups, he is one of the best point guards at help defense and has the league’s fourth-best steal percentage. As the point guard for what is by far the best defense in the league, it is difficult to argue he is not a good defender at this point.
I chronicled Curry’s strengths in great detail when I made the argument he is quite a bit better than Steve Nash ever was. Over the last two months, Curry has gone to yet another level. He has a 64.7 percent True Shooting Percentage in concert with a 29.5 percent usage percentage over that time. He is at 48.5 percent from three, while averaging 24 points and eight assists in only 32 minutes per game over that same time period. For the season, the Warriors have a ridiculous 17.5 net rating with him on the court, by far the highest of anyone on this list. His shooting off the pick and roll simply breaks defenses, as it is nearly impossible to prevent either an open shot or a four-on-three for his teammates. And as by far the best shooter on this list, he creates tons of space for his teammates even without the ball in his hands. What he has been able to do, dragging a team of relatively pedestrian offensive talents to near the top of the league in offense, is unbelievable. While I fear that LeBron James could prove me wrong in the playoffs, for now Curry has surpassed him by a nose as the league’s best.
- LeBron James
A year ago, James topped this list. He was fresh off two straight championships in which he had proved an unstoppable all-court force, and the only wart on his resume was the fact that his defense had declined during a regular season in which he was forced to carry the load for the oft-resting Dwyane Wade. His defense when locked in was the primary impetus for ranking him above Durant despite the latter’s explosive 2013-14.
But another year in the ledger has shown James’ defensive decline is real (and unsurprising) as he enters his 30s. Advanced stats and the eye test the last two years have shown that James is not the night-to-night defensive force he once was. Even in their surge the last two months, the Cavs’ defense has been only average.
Meanwhile, his offensive stats have also taken a hit. He ranks a mere sixth among realistic candidates in win percentage, fifth in PER and third in RPM. His efficiency is way down from the astronomical heights of his Miami days—his True Shooting Percentage is almost seven points lower.
Based only on his entire body of work this season, James no longer has an argument as the best player in the game. But he still has a history of a peak higher than any other player in this tier. Since his return from injury on January 13, James has been much better both statistically and by the eye test.
Another argument for James is that he simply is harder to stop than players like James Harden and Steph Curry due to his physical gifts. Even at 30, no player in the league possesses his combination of size, strength and athleticism. What’s more, he has powered the Cavs to spectacular offensive heights since his return despite their rather rudimentary offensive system (though they have tons of talent around him). He is less dependent on teammates to affect the game than perhaps any other player on this list.
Nevertheless, James turns the ball over a bit more than Curry, and even during this post-injury run his True Shooting Percentage is not much higher than his season average. Although he has the better playoff resume, in recent years that was compiled in Miami’s system that encouraged more ball-movement and spaced the floor with great shooters around him. We shall see whether he can reach the heights of playoffs past this year, but the regular season decline may augur he does not.
- Anthony Davis
In ranking Davis seventh last year, it was noted that he should be higher on the list based on his individual box score statistics. However, he struggled to really help his team, as indicated by his miserable (for a superstar) performance in plus/minus metrics. It was also predicted that Davis would figure out that aspect of his game sooner rather than later, and that has indeed occurred. He now ranks a healthy sixth in RPM, including a sterling performance on the defensive end. What’s more, his clutch performance has been among the best in the league this season.
Oh, and his box score performance? Davis is on pace to be one of four players ever to record a PER over 31, in company with Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and James. He ranks second in Pelton’s Win Percentage. He has upped his usage rate to superstar-level 27.8 percent, while also increasing his efficiency and (an oft-unnoticed factor) never turning the ball over. He has the lowest ever turnover percentage for a player with a usage rate of 27 percent or higher, a miniscule 6.4 percent.
So why is he only third on on this list? He still isn’t quite the offensive force the rest of this tier is. Davis scores poorly relative to his competitors in offensive RPM, ranking only 20th in the league. That makes some sense subjectively, as he less often initiates the play and finds his teammates (though his passing has improved). And his jumpers, while automatic, do not require defenses to stick to him in the pick and pop because most teams are willing to concede a long two. Extending his range to pick and pop from three could be the next step for him. Defensively he scores well in plus-minus metrics this year, but overall the Pelicans’ defense has been inadequate. He clearly has the talent to be better defensively and racks up the blocks and steals, but he has not been able to push his team to a dominant performance despite the raw tools to do so.
Still, one wonders whether the NBA community is missing the boat and Davis really is the league’s best, but is just unfairly punished for bad coaching and teammates. However, until he at least makes the playoffs, performs well there and shows he can be a dominant force initiating plays as well as finishing them, he remains a bit below Curry and James.
- James Harden
Harden deserves plaudits for the improvements he has made to his game this season, vaulting him into the top-tier. His much-maligned defense has improved mightily, although he is still “not bad” more than he is “good.” Few would really consider him a stopper or an above-average team defender, although he does have the ability to effectively switch onto larger players in the post in small lineups and to anticipate for steals. Offensively, he has upped his usage rate to north of 30 percent while maintaining the same ridiculous efficiency. With Dwight Howard sidelined much of the year, he initiates nearly everything for Houston when he is on the court. He is the league leader in offensive RPM, ranking fourth in Win Percentage and fifth in PER.
But Harden has two major demerits for the top spot. The first is that pretty much no measure indicates he is superior to Curry on a per play basis this season. The only reason he has amassed more “value” for the season is that Curry sits out a ton of fourth quarters because Golden State is blowing teams out.
The second is his relatively pedestrian playoff performance to date. Six-game losses the past two years to Oklahoma City and Portland have seen his efficiency crater. Portland, a defense that was shredded a round later by San Antonio, really put the clamps on him. He was unable to get to the rim and/or get fouled, and was forced to settle for a cavalcade of midrangers.* Until Harden shows the ability to dominate to the same level against great defenses in the playoffs, he cannot be higher on this list.
- Russell Westbrook
Westbrook has always been an extremely controversial figure, often derided by the mainstream for shooting too much and taking the ball away from Kevin Durant. With KD sidelined much of the year, it was Westbrook’s show once he returned from a broken hand. And what a show it has been, with Westbrook currently recording the second-highest usage rate of all time at 38.4. When Westbrook is on the floor this year, his “True Usage” (percent of the time he shoots, sets up teammates for scoring chances, or turns it over when he is on the floor) is 65 percent, over nine percent higher than second-ranked James. During his most dominant stretch after Durant went down in February, that number peaked at 79 percent. Few, if any, players in history could carry their team like that.
The result of all this is a second place ranking in PER (a statistic particularly impressed by high usage), third in Win Percentage and seventh in RPM. Of particular note, RPM sees Westbrook as a negative defender, and the eyes match that despite his outstanding steal rate. He loses his man far too much, and is a mediocre pick and roll defender.
Ultimately though, Westbrook’s season skews slightly more toward impressive than valuable, though it is clearly both in spades. His True Shooting Percentage is right around the league average. While one could argue his high usage rate is partially responsible, he has pretty much been right at this level the last five seasons. Some of the concern for his inefficiency is alleviated by the fact he has been a part of some great offenses, but no matter who he plays with and how often he shoots he has not shown the ability to be elite at scoring efficiently. That and his defense keep him fifth on this list.
- Chris Paul
This year Paul occupies the second tier all by himself, and was still a tough omission from the first tier. Aside from a declining free throw rate, the Clippers’ point guard continues to defy the aging process as he nears 30 years old, putting up an overall statistical season almost identical to a year ago by increasing both the volume and accuracy of his three-point attempts. He has now settled in as solidly above-average from deep, preventing teams from going under on the pick and roll. Paul pilots what has been the number one offense for most of the year, and kept it at those lofty heights even while Blake Griffin missed time.
Paul only misses out on the top tier due to the fact that he just isn’t quite as dominant on a personal level. His usage rate has been below 24 percent the last few years. He rarely gets to the basket any longer, taking only nine percent of his shots at the rim and 19 percent within 10 feet. And unlike the players above him, he really doesn’t have any argument for being the best player in the league, ranking fifth in Win Percentage, seventh in PER and fifth in RPM.
- DeMarcus Cousins
It may be a shock to see the Sacramento center at this level, but pretty much all the advanced statistics support it despite the Kings’ desultory performance since Mike Malone was fired.
Cousins has become an excellent defender by most metrics. The Kings’ D collapses when he is off the court, and he ranks third among centers in defensive RPM. Offensively he could stand to be more efficient, but the dearth of shooting and passing around him means he has to take more tough shots than optimal. He ranks sixth in PER, seventh in Win Percentage and ninth in RPM. While his surly reputation and the Kings’ descent into the maelstrom hurt his national perception, Cousins has earned his spot here.
- Blake Griffin
Griffin’s season has been somewhat of a disappointment for a player his age. Instead of taking the next step, he has regressed. He missed time with an elbow injury after having to withdraw from Team USA with a back fracture. Athletically, he doesn’t look quite the same. His dunks don’t detonate the way they used to, and they have declined from 2.2 per game to 1.3. He doesn’t have quite the same explosion facing up his man from the mid-post. While Griffin has refined his midrange jumper to his credit, and cited the desire to avoid injury in avoiding the paint more, the fact is his bread and butter is getting to the rim. What’s more, he still is not a plus defender protecting the basket, although he is showing a burgeoning ability to switch out onto perimeter players.
In some respects, this ranking is based on a faith that Griffin can return to a similar level to last year. Having just turned 26, the hope is that he will.
9. Marc Gasol
Gasol ultimately takes this spot as likely the most valuable defender in this tier anchoring the Grizzlies staunch unit. He has upped his usage rate this year while remaining relatively efficient, and his passing from the high post powers the Grizzlies’ offense. Curiously though, RPM does not like him nearly so much, putting him at only 45th overall in the league.
10. Damian Lillard
Count Lillard’s ranking in this spot as a vote for the value of being able to shoot threes off the dribble in pick and roll situations. While Lillard is shooting only an aberrational 34 percent from three on the season, he launches them with abandon and defenses respect it. While he’s not Steph Curry in efficiency, he has a similar effect in forcing many teams to change their pick and roll coverages. Lillard also deserves credit for improving his two biggest weaknesses, defense and finishing at the rim.
Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order
All of these players belong in Tier Four as well, as there is little to separate them from Gasol and Lillard.
Aldridge is a tough case because he is not particularly efficient offensively. But the threat of what he can do when he gets hot is perhaps more important than his actual results, as defenses stick to him like glue in the pick and pop and frequently double team him in the post. As a result, he manages to boost Portland’s offense despite his own personal inefficiency.
Butler has been a revelation this season as a two-way wing, and is an easy choice for most improved player in these eyes with the way he has added great footwork and midrange shooting to his individual offensive game. But he isn’t the offensive threat many others on this list are despite his efficiency, given a mere 20 percent usage rate. That keeps him out of the top ten.
Wall is one of the league’s best defensively at point guard, and Washington inordinately depends on him for what offense they can muster. He is right up there among the league’s best distributors. However, Wall still is not particularly efficient and doesn’t shoot threes off the dribble, which contributes to the Wizards’ spacing problems. It would be nice to see what he could do with more shooting around him and a more complex offensive system.
Leonard was perhaps the toughest omission from the top 10. RPM loves his defense, where he ranks second among wings behind specialist Tony Allen. He has also increased his usage to well above-average this year, though his marksmanship from downtown has declined along with his overall efficiency. Ultimately, a preference for bigs on defense and creators on offense kept him out of the top 10, but maybe I should trust the advanced stats more than I do.
Thompson has made unbelievable strides offensively, upping his usage rate into star territory at 27.6 percent while also boosting his True Shooting Percentage by four points to 59 percent. He is a very solid (though not great) defender on the wing as well, and his shooting in concert with Curry’s stretches the defense to its breaking point.
Irving may be overlooked at this point. Not a ton separates Irving from Lillard in individual statistics. What keeps him out of the top 10? Irving continues to be a problem defensively despite some increased effort. He also benefits from being the second option in Cleveland while playing off the ball quite a bit, a luxury Lillard does not have. Irving is younger than Lillard and may surpass him eventually, but for now Lillard is the superior player.
Who Dropped Out
Kevin Durant would clearly be in the top tier if healthy, but after a lost year and four to six months of rehabilitation ahead of him, he has to drop out for now. Kevin Love’s fall is perhaps the most disappointing. He was fourth a year ago, and could not even crack honorable mention this year. Unlike the others on this list, he does not have age or injury (though he has periodically struggled with a nagging back injury) as an excuse. Perhaps he can rejoin this list if he plays elsewhere next year or Cleveland’s system is revamped to play more to his strengths. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard have all had their seasons wrecked by injuries and ailments. Unfortunately, all are of an age where we probably should not expect to see them return to this list. And at age 36, Dirk Nowitzki has finally seen enough slippage to fall out, especially defensively. Paul George unfortunately suffered a horrific broken leg that was bad enough that one wonders whether he can return to full health. Hopefully he can return to this list next year.
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