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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.

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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, salary cap expert and attorney. He has also written for Sports Illustrated & ESPN, and a host on #NBACast

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