This is not a list of the best players in the NBA.
Rather, this is a ranking of the most valuable and coveted talents in the league, the fifty players who would be of most worth to a team starting from scratch, say, if the league recycled its rosters and instituted a fantasy draft in which every player in the league was included. Would the team on the clock go for immediate rewards or long-term potential?
I find that more great arguments and statements can arise from a ranking such as this. It begs the question, would you rather start a team with the 36-year old Shaquille O'Neal, who averaged 17 and 8 this past season, or the 21-year old Greg Oden, who averaged 8 and 7? How about Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum? Carlos Boozer or Paul Millsap? Kevin Garnett or Blake Griffin?
After all, that question is more applicable to the NBA's organization than whether a player in simply better than another. The most obvious example of this is free agency, as teams weigh a player's potential value over a number of seasons - Andre Miller is the best fit now, but do we want to commit $30 over 3 years to a 33-year old point guard? Would we be better off signing the younger Ramon Sessions? - more than anything else. Trades, and even draft picks, where just about everyone is between 18 and 22 years old, abide by this principle.
So many factors went into constructing this list, but I think you'll find its pretty succinct. Don't expect to agree with everything, but please, by all means, comment on how you feel about it.
Some technical notes: all statistics, including measurements, are from ESPN.com or Basketball-Reference.com, two invaluable sources of basketball info. Because the first posting comes with this long intro, the first article will be players ranked 50-41. On Thursday, I will post 40-26, on the following Monday, 25-11, and on Thursday, 10-1. I refrained from including Yao due to his medical issues and the concern surrounding his ever playing again. This article is dedicated to him.
50. Lamar Odom (6-10/230; SF/PF; 11.3 ppg 8.2 rpg; 10 seasons)
He's the most enigmatic talent in the league, one moment jogging down the court on a fast break, the next knocking down a fade-away three without a moment's hesitation. He doesn't produce like he used to, though he's still a tremendous rebounder (9.9 rpg per 36 minutes), exceedingly unselfish (4.2 apg, not bad for a forward coming off the bench), and can play any one of four positions with ease.
49. David West (6-9/240; PF; 21 ppg 8.5 rpg; 7 seasons)
Relatively unheralded coming out of Xavier, West has slowly but surely morphed into one of the league's most venerable power forwards. I suppose he's been playing under the radar his whole career - in the Atlantic 10 in college, drafted outside the lottery in that historic 2003 class, numbers always second to CP3 - and I guess that suits him fine. But here's one fact about the 2-time All-Star that may unfortunately go unnoticed as well - he's an 84.1% career free throw shooter.
48. Josh Smith (6-8/240; SF; 15.6 ppg 7.2 rpg 1.6 bpg; 5 seasons)
Just 23 and with five seasons under his belt, Smith is one of the main reasons for the Hawks emergence from the basement of the league. Drafted out of high school, Smith made his mark on the league faster than anyone could have expected, rapdily refining what was thought to be a raw offensive game to average 13.8 ppg for his career, including a 17.2 ppg in 2007-08 campaign. Where Smith really shines, though, is on the defensive end, posting career averages of 2.4 bpg and 1.2 spg, validating his standing as one of the game's last great stat-stuffers.
47. Hedo Turkoglu (6-10/220; SF/PF; 16.8 ppg 5.3 rpg; 9 seasons)
Formerly known primarily as a scorer, Turkoglu shed that image in the 2009 Playoffs by leading the Magic to the finals not with his jump shot, but his great playmaking ability. The 6-10 point forward had the ball in his hands every possession down the stretch, and used his size to see over opposing defenses and spread the floor. Still a threat to drop 25-30 on any given night, Turkoglu is the glue guy that turns talented teams into winning teams.
46. Vince Carter (6-6/220; SG; 20.8 ppg 5.1 rpg 4.7 apg; 11 seasons)
As his scoring has declined, his other numbers have jumped. In 2007-08, when he averaged 21.3 ppg (compared to 27.5 ppg with NJ in '04-05, 24.2 in '05-06, and 25.2 in '06-07), he also posted career highs in rpg (6.0) and apg (5.5). Now as well-rounded as he's ever been, Carter has only to prove that he can win.
45. Anthony Morrow (6-5/210; SG; 10.1 ppg 46.7% 3PT; 1 season) and Anthony Randolph (6-10/210; 7.9 ppg 5.8 rpg 1.2 bpg; 1 season)
For all the hype surrounding the 2008 draft, many slept on two of the absolute brightest prospects in the Warriors' sophomore Anthony's, Morrow and Ranolph, whose accomplishments and potential surely rank them among the game's finest young talents. Morrow, one of the two or three best shooters in the league, scored 37 points in his NBA debut, a record for an undrafted rookie, led the league in three point field goal percentage - as a rookie - and just recently set a summer league record with 47 points against the Hornets. Randolph, who many expected to be a bust after just one year at LSU, put up terrific numbers for a rookie buried in Don Nelson's depth chart, averaging 15.1 ppg and 10.6 rpg in the final month of the season - not bad for the youngest player in the entire league. The two have a great rivalry going, as Morrow, who apparently hit 90 out of 102 three pointers in a shooting drill and 98 out of 114 in another, reportedly beat Randolph in H-O-R-S-E left-handed (he's a righty). Randolph responded by tying the summer league record with a 42 point outburst against the Bulls, and earning a Team USA invite as a result, but Morrow one-upped him once more, shattering the mark just a couple days later. Once this rivalry extends into the rest of the Association, every contest might just appear another summer league game to these gifted and motivated young guns.
44. Ray Allen (6-5/205; SG; 18.2 ppg 40.9% 3PT; 13 seasons)
Accepting a reduced role has done wonders for Allen's game, as he set new career marks in field goal percentage (48%) and free throw percentage (95.2%) in 2008-09, while shooting above 40% from three for just the second time in seven years. Even if you think he wouldn't be able to drop 25 a game if he was the #1 option again, he's still - and will be until he retires - the best shooter in the league.
43. Kevin Martin (6-7/185; SG; 24.6 ppg 3.6 rpg; 5 seasons)
The 26-year old Martin is an enigma, the type of player who could outscore Kobe in a seven-game series or never make the playoffs for lack of improving the players around him. All we have to go on now is the fact that Martin is one of the league's top scorers, averaging 22.8 ppg over the past three seasons, while consistently shooting over 40% from three. One can't help but notice, though, that Martin's had more turnovers than assists in each of the past couple seasons, and his team has struggled to compete - he's also very injury prone. For a young guard saddled with the responsibility of out-scoring his opponent night in and night out, he's still an elite talent.
42. David Lee (6-9/240; PF; 16 ppg 11.7 rpg 54.9% FG)
There really isn't a more efficient big man in the game today. From the 2007 T-Mobile Rookie Challenge, when Lee scored 30 points on 14-14 shooting - no, that's not a typo - to the 2008-09 season, his fourth, in which he led the NBA in double-doubles, Lee has proven again and again that he is, quite simply, an animal. At 26, Lee's scoring has improved every season, and his career low shooting season came in 2008-09, when he shot a mere 54.9% from the floor. He might not be able to carry a team, but there are few players I'd rather have on mine.
41. Shaquille O'Neal (7-0/325; C; 17.8 ppg 8.4 rpg; 17 seasons)
Along with Kevin Garnett, he's the toughest player to rank. At 36, and boasting an average of 58 games of the past four seasons, he's not exactly the type of player one aim's to build around...but he's still Shaq, the dominant, ultra-competitive center who averages near 20 points and 10 rebounds per game when healthy and shoots around 60% from the floor. Would you rather start a team with Shaq, the three-time Finals MVP hurtling towards retirement, than any of the guys have ranked closely to him? That's a debate worth having.