Saturday, August 8, 2009

The 50 Most Valuable Players in the NBA

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 it's 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 or, 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 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.

40. Caron Butler (6-7/228; SF; 20.8 ppg 6.2 rpg 4.3 apg; 7 seasons)
Everything you could want in a SF, from size, to toughness, to a dynamic offensive repetoire. His averages of 20 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 4.3 apg, and 2 apg over the past three seasons put him in elite company, and he's just entering his prime. The only cause for concern surrounding Butler is the Wizards' dismal performance last season.

39. Carlos Boozer (6-9/266; PF; 16.2 ppg 10.4 rpg; 7 seasons)
The classic example of an extremely productive college player taken late in the draft due to concerns about his physicality, Boozer proved his worth immediately as a rookie, averaging 10 ppg and 7.5 rpg. He's since become a human double-double, averaging 19.4 and 10.8 over the past three seasons, while shooting 53.3% from the field. All that's holding him back from becoming a superstar are his mentality on the defensive end and nagging injuries.

38. Paul Millsap (6-8/250; PF; 13.5 ppg 8.6 rpg 53.4% FG; 3 seasons)
When you become the first player to lead the NCAA in rebounding three times - and leave college after your junior season - and that's not enough to warrant being picked in the top 45, well, there's something seriously wrong with that. Millsap set out to prove everyone wrong, and has since developed a reputation as one of the hardest-working players in the league. Wondering why he's ranked higher than Boozer? Well, last season he ripped off the longest double-double streak of any player in the league (16 games) and the Jazz were considerably better when Millsap was in the lineup in Boozer's absence. At 24, Millsap, who three years ago many expected never to see the floor, looks to become one of the game's elite power forwards.

37. Emeka Okafor (6-10/255; PF/C; 13.2 ppg 10.1 rpg 1.7 bpg 56.1% FG; 5 seasons)
Possibly the most underrated player in the league. Yes, he plays in Charlotte, and he struggled with injuries early in his career, but how many guys do you know that averaged a double-double their first five seasons in the league? Probably not more than two or three in the last 15 years. Also one of the league's top five post defenders, Okafor boasts a career average of 1.9 bpg, and is healthier than ever, missing not one game in the last two years. He won't put up numbers as gaudy as Dwight Howard's, but really, what more could you ask for?

36. Ben Gordon (6-3/200; SG; 20.7 ppg 45.5% FG; 5 seasons)
For a while, BG was the K-Rod of the NBA. He wouldn't start, but would come off the bench and light it up, especially in crunch time. Minute for minute one of the best scorers in the league, the 26-year old Gordon has an 18.5 ppg career scoring average despite starting in just 51% of his 602 career games. No player in the league - not DWade, not LeBron, not Agent Zero - is more fearless when it comes to shooting in seemingly impossible situations, and he has the ability to change a game unlike any other player in the league. Remember when I noted that Ray Allen's shot over 40% from three just two times in the past seven years? Well Ben Gordon's done it five years straight - every year of his career.

35. Monta Ellis (6-3/180; Combo Guard; 19 ppg 4.3 rpg; 4 seasons)
Injury and character issues overwhelmed talk of Ellis' tremendous talent last season, but barring any future motorcycle accidents, we can expect the firey combo guard who impossibly shot 53.1% from the floor, despite routinely taking some of the hardest shots imaginable, en route to averaging 20.2 ppg in 2007-08, to continue to improve at an alarming rate. Still just 23, and already one of the league's most feared scorers, Ellis just has to prove he can run a team to be considered among the game's elite guards.

34. Greg Oden (7-0/285; C; 8.9 ppg 7 rpg 56.4% FG; 1 season)
Still plagued by the injury that cancelled his rookie season, Oden, still only 21, is locked and loaded for the 2009-10 season, in the best shape of his life. While he wasn't a dominant force on the offensive end, Oden lived up to his billing as a defender, averaging 7 rpg and 1 block in only 21.5 minutes a night (11.6 rpg and 1.9 bpg per 36 minutes), while shooting 56.4% from the floor. He's still every bit as talented as he was when he entered the league, and expect him to make good on his being selected first overall in '07 as he anchors a Trailblazers team that may soon be atop the West.

33. Paul Pierce (6-7/235; SF; 20.5 ppg 5.6 rpg; 11 seasons)
The Celtic depended on to win games, Pierce relishes the spotlight like none other and still plays twice as hard as anyone on the opposing team. He's lost a step and perhaps relies too much on his size and strength to score, but he's still as gutsy, clutch - and productive, of course - as they make 'em. Pierce continues to define veteran leadership, and he didn't need that Finals MVP trophy to validate it.

32. Rudy Gay (6-8/222; SF; 18.9 ppg 5.5 rpg; 3 seasons)
Deemed something of a dissapointment at UConn after being touted as the #1 college recruit and failing to beat George Mason in the tournament, little was expected of Gay when he slipped to the Rockets late in the lottery - they thought so little of him, in fact, that they traded him to Memphis for Shane Battier, who the previous year had averaged 10.1 ppg. Lacking a jump shot and motivation, Gay's shocked almost everyone by becoming a prolific scorer, averaging 19.5 ppg over the past two seasons, due to added muscle and hustle, evidence of his becoming increasingly motivated. He hasn't yet found success with the Grizzlies, but he's done a great job in leading a very young team and demonstrating why he's one of the absolute most talented players in the game. With two college seasons and three NBA seasons under his belt, Gay is still somehow just 22, projecting that he might one day become the superstar he seemed destined to be out of high school.

31. Andre Iguodala (6-6/207; SG/SF; 18.8 ppg 5.7 rpg 5.3 apg; 5 seasons)
At 24, Igu, who's played two years of college ball but might as well have come out of high school according to his age, is one of the rare prospects drafted in the lottery solely due to his athleticism and potential that actually panned out. The second-most durable player in the league since he came in (teammate Andre Miller is first), Iguodala has played in 404 out of a possible 410 games, playing all 82 every year but one, and blossomed into one of the most well-rounded players in the league, averaging 19 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.7 apg, and 1.9 spg over the last three seasons. And he's still just 24.

30. Rajon Rondo (6-1/171; PG; 11.9 ppg 8.2 apg 5.2 1.9 spg 3 seasons)
When a 23-year old point guard averages 16.9-9.8-9.7 in the playoffs, and his GM is doing everything within his power to try to trade him, you know something's wrong. Word is that Rondo's insane - uncoachable, stubborn, selfish - but unlike, say, Zach Randolph and Stephon Marbury, about whom similar things are said, Rondo produces across the board and flat out wins games. The numbers he compiled in the post-season, in which the Celtics were one game away from the conference finals despite playing the entire playoffs without their best player, are simply staggering, the sutff legends are made of. An outstanding defender and top-notch game manager, Rondo is still weak offensively and many argue that he is a product of his environment. That said, he's still very, very young, and what he's accomplished in his first couple years is at least enough to offset claims about his mental state.

29. Jose Calderon (6-3/210; PG; 12.9 ppg 8.9 apg 98.1% FT)
I love point guards, and Calderon, to me, is almost perfect. The numbers he's posted over the past couple seasons, since taking over the starting role, are just bananas. In 2007-08, he averaged 8.3 apg and 1.5 TO, an A/TO ratio of 5.53:1, the greatest of all-time; Last season he averaged 8.9 apg to a mere 2.1 TO, good enough to lead the league again. What's more, he shot 98.1% from the charity stripe, another all-time record. How many records does he need to set before he gets some respect around here?? At 27, Calderon is just entering his prime, and having started for just one entire season, appears to just be scratching the surface of his potential.

28. Gilbert Arenas (6-4/215; Combo Guard; 8 seasons)
During the beginning of his tenure as a Wizard everybody was obsessed with trying out figure out who Agent Zero really is, with his wacky off-court persona and fittingly untraditional game. But now, people are wondering who Gilbert Arenas is, and they're not kidding around. After a couple seasons among the league's scoring leaders, Arenas has played 15 games in the past two seasons; Penny Hardaway never missed so many games over a two-year span. Gilbert is capable - or was capable - of putting up 30, 40, 50, even 60 points on any given night, but hasn't acheived an A/TO ratio over 2:1 in any year, most times not even coming close, including one year in which he averaged 5.0 apg and 4.1 TO. That's unacceptable for a PG. But despite all this, he can be as valuable as they come, as witnessed by Washington's complete and utter collapse without him last season. He may well be one of the game's best players, but he has more to prove than anyone else in the NBA.

27. LaMarcus Aldridge (6-11/240; PF/C; 18.1 ppg 7.5 rpg; 3 seasons)
A most deserving companion to Brandon Roy, the former 2nd-overall pick has fully lived up to his billing as a supremely agile big man with a mature offensive game. He doesn't quite rebound or block shots like he should - yet - but he's become an incredibly efficient player (78.4% FT, only 1.5 TO), and should start averaging over 20 ppg in the next couple seasons. The truth is, players with Aldridge's size and skill level, at his age, aren't totally uncommon, and the best part of Aldridge's game is the way he utilizes all his tools on every possession and exercises his potential to the max.

26. Joe Johnson (6-7/240; SG/SF; 21.4 ppg 5.8 apg; 8 seasons)
A silent assassin, Johnson came to the Hawks with the expectation of improving upon the numbers he posted in Phoenix, but nobody could have thought he would have turned the entire franchise around so quickly. He's simply been one of the best players in the league since he arrived in Atlanta, averaging 22.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg and 4.3 rpg over that four year span, leading his exceptionally young squad to 26 wins, 30 wins, 37 wins, and 47 wins in his tenure. He's not the flashiest star, but he's on his way to becoming one of the most accomplished.

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 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.

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 (averaging 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 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.

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