Part 3 of 4 in my ranking of the most valuable players in the league.
25. Pau Gasol (7-0/227; PF/C; 18.9 ppg 9.6 rpg 56.7% FG)
He enjoyed arguably his best season yet in 2008-09, acheiving career highs in rebounds and field goal percentage, and even improving upon his numbers in the playoffs. He might have the best post moves in the league and is a tireless competitor, and all that prevents him from being ranked even higher is his lackadisical nature on the defensive end, i.e., a Rockets team minus Yao and T-Mac should not score 40 points in the paint in a playoff game going up against the Lakers and their bigs. I think a fair characterization of Gasol would be to call him the best player in the league who doesn't dominates games.
24. Andrew Bynum (7-0/285; C; 14.3 ppg 8 rpg 56% FG)
He's the second most erratic player in the league, after teammate Lamar Odom, of course, but more understandably so, as he has the proclivity to pick up fouls, gets flustered easily and is still barely old enough to drink. But when Andrew Bynum's on, he is truly unstoppable. Bynum is able to score at will (58.5% FG over the past three seasons), is a great rebounder (8.0 rpg in only 26.5 mpg over that same three year period), and an even better defender (1.8 bpg in that span). When you consider the rate at which he's improving, and the fact that he's still just 21 years old, he has to be ranked among the game's best building blocks.
23. Blake Griffin (6-10/248; PF; Rookie)
One of the filthiest players to enter the league this decade (in case you've been hibernating for the past 10 months, Blake averaged 22.7-14.4 as a sophomore and shot 65.4% from the field - not the line, the field - en route to winning player of the year), Griffin is NBA-ready, and though he might not average 20 and 10 a rookie (still, don't count it out), figure that its a virtual certainty that he'll be posting such numbers by age 22. Motivated and ferocious on the block, he would make a perfect centerpiece for a team starting from the ground up.
22. Danny Granger (6-8/228; SF/PF; 25.8 ppg 5.1 rpg; 4 seasons)
I love Danny Granger, and I've never seen him play. I love that people were so high on him out New Mexico State, though they'd probably never seen him play, and I love that he became everything scouts hoped and more. I love that he's probably - no, definitely - the only player in history to improve his scoring average by at least 5 ppg his first four seasons in the league (would have been 6 ppg had he not only improved from 13.9 ppg to 19.6 ppg between his second and third seasons. Slacker!) But there are still so many question marks surrounding him. Is he the player that finishes in the top 10 in scoring every year but never makes the playoffs? In his career he has 2 more assists (553) than turnovers (551) - is that who he is? Does he make the players around him better? At 6-8, can't he average more than 5 or 6 rpg? For now, I think it would be best to push those concerns to the back burner as the 25-year old continues to mature, and give him the benefit of the doubt.
21.Brook Lopez (7-0/260; C; 13 ppg 8.1 rpg 1.8 bpg; 1 season)
What do the Heat, Grizzlies, Thunder, Timberwolves, Clippers and Bobcats have in common? They all made excellent selections with their top 10 pick in the 2008 draft, and they'll all still be haunted to the grave for passing up on Brook Lopez. After one season in the league, Lopez appears not only to be a great pro, but a future fixture of All-NBA teams, as played all 82 games (started 75), averaged 13.1 and 8.1, blocked nearly two shots a night (good for 4th in the league), and was remarkably efficient, shooting 53.1% from the floor and 79.3% from the line. He's already proven to have terrific chemistry with PG Devin Harris, as 45% of Harris points came off pick and rolls, almost all of which were run through Brook. Here's a guy you can build around.
20. Amare Stoudemire (6-10/249; PF/C; 21.4 ppg 8.1 rpg; 7 seasons)
Injuries may have slowed him down, but they haven't deminished his talent. Not only is Amare still the bounciest player in the league, he's also one of the best around the basket, shooting a sensational 56.8% over the past three seasons, and averaging over 20 ppg every year since his rookie campaign save for one, the 2005-06 season, in which he played 3 games. A superior defender capable of guarding three positions, Amare is simply a basketball machine when healthy, the type of player that's impossible to plan around. He's still a special talent, and at 26, he still has room to grow.
19. Chris Bosh (6-10/230; PF; 22.7 ppg 10 rpg; 6 seasons)
After the 2006-07 season, when the Raptors won 47 games and coach Sam Mitchell won Coach of the Year, star Chris Bosh looked to finally join the company of LeBron, DWade and Carmelo, fellow top 5 picks in the already legendary 2003 draft class, as a legitimate superstar, only to see the team collapse in on itself like a supernova in the following years. Not only is he one of the league's best power forwards, he's the most frighteningly consistent scorer in the game, averaging between 22.3 and 22.7 ppg in each of the past four seasons, and is still constantly improving, averaging 10 rpg for the second time in his career this past year. And he still has awesome potential. After all, he's been the best PF in the East for four years now - and he's only 25.
18. Kevin Garnett (6-11/253; PF/C; 15.8 ppg 8.5 rpg; 14 seasons)
Garnett's numbers in 2006-07/2008-09: ppg - 22.4/15.8; rpg: 12.8/8.5; apg: 4.1/2.5; bpg: 1.7/1.2. Can those steep declines be attributed to his accepting a less demanding role in Boston? Of course. He's still, with 14 seasons under his belt, a player I'd start my team with, though he's no longer one of the top ten players in the league and is aging fast. Still an all-world defender and capable of averaging 20 and 10 when healthy, you can arguably learn as much from him as from any player in the league. A champion and an MVP, he'll always be the Big Ticket.
17. Chauncey Billups (6-3/202; PG; 17.9 ppg 6.4 spg; 12 seasons)
One of only five players to play in seven consecutive conference finals - and the only one to do it with two teams - Billups is arguably the best winner in the game today. Mr. Big Shot is in many ways the perfect point guard, finishing among the leaders in A/TO ratio every year (leading the league in 2005-06, avering 8.6 apg to just 2 TO), shooting an inhuman 88.9% from the line for his career, and scoring when he's called upon to do so, averaging 17.1 ppg since 2002-03, when he finally settled down with the Pistons after playing with four teams in his first five years in the league. Most indicative of Billups' winningness is his being traded three games into the season to the Nuggets for Allen Iverson, who most everyone would say is a superior player, and subsequently leading them to a 54-win season and a conference finals appearance after they had lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past six seasons; the Pistons, conversely, not only did not make the conf. finals for the first time in 7 years, but finished the season a paltry 39-43. He's still got a lot left in the tank, and if I was fielding a team for just one season, he would likely be my point guard.
16. Devin Harris (6-3/185; PG; 21.3 PPG 6.9 APG 1.6 SPG; 6 seasons)
Expectation has followed Harris everywhere, from being handed the key to Wisconsin basketball as a freshman, to being the 5th pick overall and traded for All-Star Antawn Jamison on draft day, to be being traded for future hall of famer Jason Kidd, who had led the Nets to the NBA Finals twice without having won a single division title in their history before his arrival. And Harris has conquered every expectation with equal poise. Last season Harris was the second highest-scoring point guard, averaging 21.3 ppg (a 6.5 ppg improvement from the prior year), while averaging 6.9 apg and shooting 82% from the line. Also a top-notch defender (1.7 spg, ) the 26-year old Harris is improving more rapidly than any player in the game, and has solidified his standing as one of the top point guards in the league while having just tapped his tremendous potential.
15. Tony Parker (6-2/180; PG; 22 ppg 6.9 apg 50.4% FG; 8 seasons)
He might not be the most underrated player in the league, but he hardly gets the respect a future first-ballot hall of famer deserves. A three-time champion and MVP of the 2007 Finals, Parker has transitioned from a game manager to one of the game's most dominant weapons, this past year setting not just a career high in scoring (22 ppg), but also in assists (6.9 apg). He's also exceedinly efficient, finishing as high as third in the league in FG% in 2005-06. He never quite averages as many assists as he should though, which is all that prevents him from being top 10.
14. Steve Nash (6-3/178; PG; 15.7 ppg 9.7 apg 93.3% FT; 13 seasons)
The greatest point guard never to have played in an NBA Finals game, Nash is still the best passer and facilitator in the league. Having shot over 50% from the field in each of the last four seasons, a whopping 43.2% from three and 90% from the line for his career while averaging 17.1 ppg since becoming a Sun, he's much more adept offensive than he's often credited, which only re-inforces the common assertion that he's still the most dangerous player in the league with the ball in his hands. At 35, its hard to make an argument for him as the centerpiece for a budding franchise, but considering all thats he has experienced (102 playoff games) and accomplished (two MVP trophies), and the fact that he still averages 10 apg, you have to include him among the players who could permanently turn a franchise around.
13. Al Jefferson (6-10/266; PF/C; 23.1 ppg 11 rpg; 5 seasons)
When he was selected 15th overall by the Celtics in 2005, few people could have expected the big and burly high school prospect so similar to Eddy Curry to be averaging 20 and 10 by age 22, the same age at which Kevin Garnett acheived that feat (the oversized high school prodigies both went to the Farragut Academy in Chicago, and were traded for one another in 2007). Big Al is the rare young big man who resolved to harness his incredible talent early on, and the results have been explosive. Never having played with any real talent has certainly made his development rough, but he's accepted the go-to role like a veteran, averaging 22.1 and 11.1 as a Timberwolf, and steadily improving his defense, averaging a healthy 1.7 bpg this past season, a career high. Don't let his team's record deceive you - he's one of the absolute most dominant players in the league, which would be much more evident if he had some semblance of talent surrounding him.
12. Carmelo Anthony (6-8/230; SF; 22.8 ppg 6.8 rpg; 6 seasons)
Prior to the 2008-09 season, he wouldn't have been ranked so highly - probably closer to Danny Granger. In posting his lowest scoring average in four years, Melo became the player that O.J. Mayo can only aspire to become - a gifted scorer who puts his team first. The 6-8 forward, who's averaged 20 ppg every year of his career, was a different player when Chauncey Billups arrived, but most noticeably in the postseason, when he went toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant, not just in the box score, but by jostling with him on defense, going for every loose ball and getting under his skin. We hadn't seen Melo the Competitor since college, when he led Syracuse to the title in his one and only season, and now that he's back, the LeBron's, Kobe's and Wade's of this world have another superstar to reckon with.
11. Dirk Nowitzki (7-0/245; PF; 25.9 ppg 8.4 rpg; 11 seasons)
An MVP who was this close to winning a championship, Dirk, a young 31, is still playing at the top of his game. No player makes more - maybe as much as, but not more - of an effort to win ball games, and he's probably hit the most game-deciding shots of any 7-footer in history. You could also make an argument for Nowitzki as the most durable player in the league - the fact that the mobile 7-footer who essentially plays the swing position has played at least 76 games in each of the past 10 seasons is as absolutely mind-boggling. In many ways a flawless player, Nowitzki rebounds his size (8.6 rpg career average), is one of the best free throw shooters in the game (87.2%) and rarely turns the ball over (1.9 TO). All that prevents him from being in the realm of the league's immortals is his defense.