Part 4 of 4 in my ranking of the league's 50 most valuable players.
10. Kevin Durant (6-9/216; SG/SF; 25.3 ppg 6.3 rpg; 2 seasons)
I readily admit that I wasn't so high on KD1 out of college. I know he broke a ton of records and became the first freshman to win POY, but I saw him as an Iverson/Randolph/Marbury type, not at all based on attitude, but as the type of player who can lead the league in a litany of categories and still never win. He hasn't won in OKC yet, but I obviously am not holding that against him, and have come to admire how he's handled leading the least experienced team into battle every night, consistently competing with the league's best. As a scorer he is truly a special, special talent, in fact he's probably the best pure scorer in the game already, averaging 25.3 ppg while shooting 47.6% from the field 42.2% from three and 86.3% from the line in his second year in the league. The 20-year old Durant has many scoring titles and All-Star appearances in his future - but I'm still kind of skeptical about his ability to make his teammates better and take them to the next level.
9. Derrick Rose (6-3/190; PG; 16.8 ppg 6.3 apg; 1 season)
This is the guy you want to have leading your team. At age 20, Rose has won three high school state championships, led Memphis to the national championship game in his only college season, and won NBA rookie of the year. Rose is not just the prototypical point guard, he's the point guard, a totally unselfish, yet lethal scorer with a killer instinct, not to mention awesome size and out of this world athleticism. In his rookie year he nearly led his Bulls past the defending champion Celtics, averaging 19.7 ppg, 6.4 apg, and 6.3 rpg in the seven game series. And he's just 20 years old! Bursting with potential, and having sufficiently silenced those who thought Michael Beasley should be picked #1 in the 2008 draft, Rose has played 81 games and is already the best point guard in the East.
8. Tim Duncan (6-11/260; PF/C; 19.3 ppg 10.7 rpg; 12 seasons)
I feel dirty putting him here, I really do, but I also don't have much of a choice. The past two seasons have seen The Big Fundamental average under 20 ppg for the second and third times in his career, his first two seasons averaging under 2 bpg, and the Spurs are coming off their 2nd-worst season in Duncan's tenure. I guess the sign of a truly great player, though, is how you can point out all these negative aspects of his performance and still call him without a hesitation one of the 10 best players in the league. He's still won three championships in the last seven years, still the winningest player in the league, and when you're the winningest player in the NBA and still routinely averaging 20 and 10, no matter you're age, you're still one of the 10 players a GM could hope to start his franchise with.
7. Dwight Howard (6-11/266; C; 20.6 ppg 13.8 rpg 2.9 bpg; 5 seasons)
The second-coming of Moses Malone, at least statistically thus far, has proven to be the best center in the league at age 23, with his numbers ballooning in most every category. A veritable force, Howard has morphed into not just a prolific scorer and rebounder but a great shot blocker, taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors in a sensational 2008-09 that was capped with a run to the Finals. Seeing as most every championship since Jordan's second retirement have been won by big men, Howard would seem a sure lock for a top 5 ranking, only he just doesn't seem to really want it on each and every possession, to do all the little things, unlike, say...
5. Chris Paul (6-0/175; PG; 22.8 ppg 11 apg 2.8 spg; 4 seasons) and Deron Williams (6-3/207; PG; 19.4 ppg 10.7 apg; 4 seasons)
The inevitable Chris Paul, Deron Williams pairing. For the purpose of this list they're here so I can demonstrate how they're better than just about everyone else, not to be compared with one another, but I'll throw you a line to make you more comfortable: Paul has slightly better numbers, Williams averages about 2 or 3 more regular season wins per year and has played in twice as many playoff games. There. Now shut up. I really think fans don't understand the enormity of what CP3 and Dwill are accomplishing. Paul, age 24, is one of a small handful of players in history to average 20 points and 10 assists (he's done it twice), and recorded a steal in a record 108 games; Williams, age 25, has recorded more points and assists in a single season than Jason Kidd ever did, and led the Jazz to the conference finals his second year in the league (averaging 21.6 ppg and 10 apg in their run). They're already in the company of the game's greatest point guards, with at least a dozen more great years ahead of them.
4. Dwayne Wade (6-4/216; SG; 30.2 ppg 7.5 apg 5 rpg 2.2 spg; 6 seasons)
Of all the NBA's elite, otherworldly talents, DWade is the player most unmistakably at his peak at the time of this article's publication, having led the league in scoring (30.2 ppg), while posting career highs in assists (7.5 apg) and steals (2.2 spg) and games played (79) this past season. Now at the point where he can take over any game at will, effortlessly, Wade boasts career scoring (25.2 ppg), assists (6.7 apg) and defensive numbers (1.8 spg) superior to Kobe's, and if the comparison solely with each player's first 6 seasons in the league taken into account, Flash would have blown him out of the water. Most unfortunately, though, Wade has struggled with nagging injuries his whole career (avering 66 games per season), and for the last three seasons since he earned Finals MVP honors has struggled to lead the Heat out of mediocrity. Still, I, and most every fan can say with confidence - especially considering his '08-09 campaign - that he's arguably the most exciting, inspiring, and easy to root for player in the game.
3. Brandon Roy (6-6/211; SG; 22.6 ppg 5.1 apg 4.7 rpg; 3 seasons)
He isn't just here for the awesome numbers he's posted, and his leading the Blazers to an improvement of at least 10 games in each of his three seasons. Brandon Roy is here because of what he stands for. He stands for the rehabilitation of one of the most reviled teams in league history, the 'Jailblazers,' with their sex offenders, dog fighters, and drug addicts, who, prior to Roy's joining the team in 2006, had stood for everything that people hate about the NBA. He stands for studying tirelessly for the SAT due to a learning disability he's struggled with his entire life and taking it as many times as was necessary to ensure he could go to a good college, and not just skip out on it like Brandon Jennings, and for working on the Seattle docks to ensure that he could pay for that education. He stands for playing four years in college to hone his game. As a triple double threat and exceedingly selfless teammate, he stands for vengeance for the fated careers of Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill. To me, a Utah Jazz fan, he's an enemy. But having seen him play, I can't say there's another play in the league who I have more respect for.
2. Kobe Bryant (6-6/205; SG; 26.8 ppg 5.3 rpg 4.9 apg; 13 seasons)
I recognize that saying that Kobe is not the best player in the NBA cannot totally be justified, and that ranking either Kobe Bryant or LeBron James '2nd' on any list requires more justification than outright praise for the player - in this case, I'll save that justification for my #1. While his scoring totals are down, he's undoubtedly playing the best basketball of his career - he is, finally, the closest we will ever come to seeing Jordan in his prime again, from phyisical, competitve, and performance standpoints. I think referencing Kobe's stats might even be an insult to his game - they wouldn't be able to accurately reflect his talent or his success, even if he averaged 45 points per game. Fact is, Kobe's the perfect player, who defenders truly cannot stop can and only hope to contain, who scores more prolifically and efficiently in the clutch than any player I've ever seen, passes like a point guard, defends like a man possessed, competes like there's no tomorrow, glides and leaps with uncommon agility and grace, bears a genius basketball IQ, and is inarguably the most fundamental player in the game. To me, at least, simply mentioning his averaging 30 ppg in the playoffs doesn't do that justice. Winning a fourth championship? That's more fitting.
1. LeBron James (6-8/250; SF; 28.4 ppg 7.6 rpg 7.2 apg; 6 seasons)
I can promise that I respect Kobe Bryant as a basketball player as much as, if not more so than, the next guy. But to me the Kobe/Lebron debate can be boiled down to one fact and one proposition that go hand in hand: Lebron led the Cavaliers to 66 wins with a starting lineup that was rounded out by Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anderson Varejao, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a band of journeymen who would likely be 5th, 6th or 7th men on any other team, and no consistent bench play whatsoever. That (at least the 66 wins part) is the fact. Now imagine if instead of them, LeBron had Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, one of Ron Artest or Trevor Ariza, and a four-time champion in Derek Fisher running the point (i.e., Kobe has three teammates on this list; Lebron has zero). that's the proposition. That team would never lose. If LeBron could win 66 games with those guys, what could he do with Kobe's all-world teammates?
LeBron is the type of player you couldn't make up in a video game. To reference every still-quoted scouting report from his high school days, he has the frame of a power forward - a strong power forward at that - and the vision of a point guard, and a scoring attack that defies guardability. He's the most consistent triple-double threat since Oscar Robertson, an All-NBA 1st-team defender, he's led the league in scoring (and could every year if the Cavs could justify playing him when up by 25 points), and played in 60 playoff games over the past four seasons, averaging 35.3 ppg and 9.1 rpg in 2008-09. He's 24 and has scored 12,993 points - Kareem Abdul Jabar, the game's all-time leading scorer, didn't reach that plateau until age 28. With any semblance of talent around him, he would win the title ever year. It's just that simple. To put his accomplishments into even clearer perspective, he's younger than at least one player drafted out of college in the most recent NBA draft, and he's scored 12,993 points in the NBA.
LeBron is the world's greatest gifts to sports, a player who isn't just tailored, physically and talent-wise, to dominate, but who is so visibly hard-working and motivated, utterly likable and charismatic, so as to shame the aggravatingly reserved, often nasty Kobe. He's the pinnacle of potential, and the #1 reason to keep watching, loving, and debating this great game.