One Season, One Goal, 30 Players. Part I of 2: Building Blocks

The firestorm Kevin Durant set in motion by suggesting that Harden had eclipsed Wade overshadowed an otherwise mostly well-done list by the guys at SI.  Similarly, ESPN’s headline grabbing appraisal of Kobe to be the league’s 25th best player diverted attention from largely sound ratings to catalyze skepticism as to whether the world-wide leader’s panel expects the man they call “Vino” to play only after consuming two bottles of vino this season.

We're equally amused Kobe

We’re equally amused Kobe

Of course, the composition of these rankings bears many of the same names in similar places as the other two.  More intriguingly, several wild divergences in those player evaluations (e.g., ESPN has John Wall at 21, while SI ranked him 40th) are likewise evident in our list.  Despite the similarities, these ratings are different, and not just because they lack the polished graphics accompanying the big guys’ lists.  We’ll give you the criteria up front, and leave the wisdom of its application for you to decide.   Here are the metrics:

      • This is a list of the league’s “best” players.   Since “best” is subjective, we’ve employed this mechanism to define it:

Assume that today, all 30 teams participate in a draft that includes every player on a 1 year contract .  Teams have only the knowledge available today about expected player performance (i.e., injuries to Kobe, Westbrook, and Rondo diminish their ratings to the extent expected to result in decreased production.)  Make the further assumption that each team’s only objective is to maximize its odds of winning the title this year.

What we did not consider is equally important:

      • It’s not a trade value column.  Relative salaries and upside simply do not count.
      • It’s not a lifetime achievement award.  NBA historians will undoubtedly conclude that Tim Duncan is a Top 10 player of all time.  And Kobe Bryant does indeed have 5 more rings than Kevin Durant.  For our purposes, experience matters only to the extent that it can be expected to enhance a player’s contributions this year.

Applying those criteria, the following list represents our analysis of the in order in which savvy NBA GMs would select the game’s best players.

***

Part I: “Building Blocks & Game Changers” (#16-30)

16.  Carmelo Anthony (ESPN #15, SI #10). With the talent to emerge victorious from a head to head matchup against anyone in the league, landing at #16 is certainly more disappointment than accomplishment for Carmelo.  Only Durant, whose superior accuracy gives him the slightest of edges, can score like Carmelo.  He’s as imposing in the post as he is terrifying from the three point line. And he reaches his greatest heights with the game on the line.  So dynamic a scorer, Carmelo is a franchise building block despite subpar performance in nearly every other facet of the game.

Poor defensive effort, ill-advised shot selection, and inferior court vision have hampered his development.   Equally poor defenders (Dirk, Nash, and Parker come to mind) and chuckers (Kobe, Westbrook) alike have enjoyed greater success.  The reason? I don’t think Carmelo can be a leader.  He’s certainly not a natural one.  But that’s not necessary.  For every born leader like CP3, Kidd, and Duncan, there are at least ten like Kobe, Dirk, and Nash, who had to learn to how to become one.  To be fair, he’s not enjoyed the best circumstances to hone those skills.  Melo spent his formative years adding to the count of knuckleheads around him (Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Birdman) on a talented Nuggets team.   He arrived in New York to meet two more in Amare and Mike D’Antoni on an ill-conceived  Knicks roster.  Even taking all of that into consideration, Carmelo enters is 12th season without having exhibited so much as a hint of leadership.

So don’t bet on Carmelo to lead your team to a title.  He won’t do it.  But I’d be cautious about discounting his ability to win one.   Carmelo can absolutely be the focal point of a championship offense with the right pieces around him.  And it’s not so hard to envision how that might unfold.  Consider the case of Paul Pierce.  A better defender, inferior scorer, and once considered almost equally difficult to play with, the arrival of KG  dramatically altered Pierce’s trajectory.  KG changed the culture, but Pierce was Boston’s best player in 2008. Would he ever have won a title as a featured cornerstone like Duncan and Kobe?  I doubt it.   And I’d put Carmelo in that same category.

17.  Anthony Davis (ESPN #33,  SI #41).  18. Marc Gasol (ESPN #10, SI #14)Potential vs. Production 1.0.  Two different sides of the samecoin: Davis’s seemingly limitless potential is counterweighted by Gasol’s entrenched high-level production.  I’ll take Davis – and I’m clearly out on a limb in doing so.

Not yet having demonstrated the ability to consistently change the game on defense, Gasol is the preferred defensive anchor, a status made tenuous only by the unbelievable length of Davis’s arms.  At some point those arms are bound to become a menace to his opponents.  On offense, both possess the range to stretch defenses, Gasol’s shot more consistent, Davis’s comfort zone extending several feet further out all the way to the three point line.  Gasol’s uncanny court vision and elite decision making at the 5 offset the young fella’s markedly superior finishing abilities.

You think he ever flies coach?

You think he ever flies coach?

Gasol’s much tougher.  Davis is a far superior athlete.   In a close call, the nod goes to Davis based on a plainly uncommon expectation about the degree of improvement we will see from Davis this season.   I expect considerable development offensively from him, spurred both by acclimation to the speed of the game and the Pelis acquisition of a high-level facilitator in Holiday.  More importantly, I expect rapid progression on defense as Davis learns to disrupt plays all over the floor with length that you just can’t teach.

19.5 Blake Griffin (ESPN #14 , SI #19 ) & Kevin Love (ESPN #11 , SI #13 ). Both are top-shelf rebounders (Love in particular).  Each utilizes rare skills to scores at a prolific rate.  Love shoots 3s.  Griffin draws on his hyper-explosiveness to launch assaults at the basket.  And both appear to have significant unrealized potential.   Then again…

Neither has won anything.  Neither plays defense.  And each carries a distinct question mark.  (Love’s lofty rankings from SI and ESPN fly in the face of those realities.) For Blake, it’s his attitude.  For Love, it’s his health.   Each appears interested in a change of scenery.  You can see the CP3 fatigue in Blake’s body language, and Love appears poised to join a rather large cadre of players who simply would rather not call the frozen tundra of Minnesota home.

He can't throw those amazing outlet passes with a broken hand.

He can’t throw those amazing outlet passes with a broken hand.

My best guess is that one makes it.  Either Blake or Love will realize his considerable talents with his current team or elsewhere.  In doing so, he likely rises up to the top ten of these rankings.   As for the other, something will either derail or hold still his development.  Perhaps it’s another knee injury to Blake or more lost seasons for Love.  Or maybe he’s just not a winner, and spends his career making fantasy owners happy in route to 40 wins a year.  Candidly, I have no sense for who faces which fate.  Gun to my head?  I say Blake finally “gets it” and becomes a high-level second banana for a contender, while Love battles injuries throughout his career before making meaningful contributions as a third to fifth wheel for a powerhouse.   Your guess is as good as mine.

21.  Deron Williams (ESPN #20, SI #24  ).  22.  Rajon Rondo (ESPN #27 , SI #26).  Each has much to prove.  These two malcontents need to show that they can be the best player on a championship level team.   For Rondo, due to injury and the Celtic’s current rebuilding endeavors, it won’t happen this year.  Stay tuned once he has a top-flight talent from the 2014 draft and a couple of free agents around him.

For Deron, it’s his last chance.  Far removed from Utah, where his impressive playoff performances against Houston and LA left me convinced that he was then, and would remain a top 10 player in the league, and inspired many comparisons to Chris Paul (some even favorable).  After last year’s flame-out against a depleted Bulls squad, I’ve never been more skeptical that he’ll regain his Salt Lake City form.  So what happened?   I’m not totally sure.   Forced to guess, I’d say that the rapid decline of Boozer and Okur spelled the end of DWill’s investment in the Jazz.  Disinterested, I suspect that his skills atrophied before he arrived in Brooklyn.   Then in his 8th season, perhaps it wasn’t so easy to flip the switch.  Or perhaps he recognized that Brooklyn too lacked the talent to launch a legitimate championship campaign.   Whatever the case, DWill’s shown his top form on fleetingly few occasions. With the arrival of KG and Pierce, no excuses remain.  Your move DWill.

23. DeMarcus Cousins (ESPN #42 , SI #53).  Upside doesn’t when championships.  If it did, Cousins might very well round out the top five here.  Hell, he might crack the top 15 here simply by checking the crazy at home this year.  Of course he’s yet to that, and his brand of crazy has spared no one – not teammates, not his coach, not Team USA – save opponents banking on it grounding his emergence as the league’s best center.

And make no mistake, his skills and size left unfettered by his combustible mental state would indeed make him second to no big man today.

Coincidentally, his coaches often want to assist his efforts to choke himself.

Coincidentally, his coaches often want to assist his efforts to choke himself.

Cousins has legit center size and post moves, can shoot out to the three point line, threads passes like a point guard, and has the handle of a man ten inches shorter.  How much of his troubles can be ascribed to the general dysfunction in Sacramento is tough to say.  No player could benefit more from a change of scenery.  Perhaps a new regime in Sacramento will accomplish that without sending Cousins packing.  If and when Cousins gets it, the league has its next great big man. Even with his heavy baggage, it boggles the mind that SI found 52 players it prefers.  Nic Batum and Andrei Kirilenko stand out as especially egregious among no fewer than ten baffling preferences.  I would speculate that we’d have to agree to disagree as to the appropriate weight of Cousins troubles, and perhaps SI’s criteria differs sufficiently to warrant its evaluation.  But it says here that you won’t find 23 guys, let alone 52, who give you a better chance to bring home the hardware this season.

24. John Wall (ESPN #21, SI #40).  Like his former Kentucky teammate, Wall’s development rate has been something less than optimal.   With DeMarcus, that was to be expected to some extent.  In Wall’s case, however, expectations were higher after the immediate impact made by young guards like Paul, Williams, Rose, Westbrook, and Curry.  There is thus a corresponding sense of disappointment in Wall’s failure to meet those expectations.

A fair assessment recognizes that Wall’s been pretty good.   His speed (especially with the ball) has been at least as spectacular as advertised.  He’s also racked up a strong assist rate while playing with something less than Team USA grade talent.  His detractors also have reasonable criticisms.  Wall doesn’t create his own shot or get to the basket as easily as his college tape and crazy physical gifts suggested he would.  Speaking of shooting, he’s shown few signs of improvement on an erratic jump shot.   Then, there are the turnovers, and the drifting on defense, each of which might fairly be chalked up to the once inevitable learning curve for point guards.

The influx of NBA ready guards flattened that curve.  An examination of three-year averages for several star point guards drafted before that dynamic took hold suggests that patience is an especially valuable virtue for the Wiz.

    • Mark Price (14ppg., 6 ast.)
    • Gary Payton (10ppg., 6 ast.)
    • Steve Nash (7ppg., 4 ast.)
    • Chauncey Billups (11.5 ppg., 3.5 ast.)
    • Tony Parker (12.5 ppg., 5ast.)
    • Rajon Rondo (10ppg., 5.5 ast.)

By comparison, Wall’s 17 points and 8 assists three year averages don’t look so bad, even considering the extent to which he’s been featured on an abysmal team.  Beyond the stats, the point is that a fair amount of great point guards took a few years to impact the game on the level we remember.  Nothing about Wall’s game suggest that he can’t progress in much the same fashion.

Apparently his choice in wireless providers is static too.

Apparently his choice in wireless providers is static too.

25.  Damian Lillard (ESPN #30, SI: #47).  26.  LaMarcus Aldridge (ESPN #17 , SI: #18).  Potential vs. Production 2.0.  Lillard is terrifying.  Aldridge is static.   Statically very good, mind you, but static nonetheless.  If LaMarcus has improved in any respect during that last four years, that’d be news to me.  So despite the fact that you could find many worse frontcourt pillars, I believe that we have sufficient evidence to conclude that Aldridge will not lead your team anywhere especially desirable.

Lillard’s just the opposite.  Admittedly, I’ve watched just 7 or 8 entire games in which he’s played.  In those five games, I saw nothing to dissuade anyone from believing that Lillard’s poised to join Rose, Westbrook, and Curry, as the next great combo guard.  From such a small sample – the one season not the five games – I can’t confidently vault him now to where his considerable potential may lead him.   For now, Lillard’s speed, shooting, creativity, and fearlessness in are especially valuable in a league gravitating towards that skill-set, and make him the game’s best Blazer.  Things are looking up in Portland.

27. Joakim Noah (ESPN #23, SI #21). 28. Al Horford (ESPN #19,  SI #22). 29.  Pau Gasol (ESPN #29,  SI #36:). Three distinct styles result in three highly similar values.  Noah’s all defense, energy, and team.  Horford brings more offense and muscle.   Gasol compensates for his deteriorating (never stellar) defense with the game’s best post game and uncommon passing prowess from a 7 footer.  At one time, inclusion with the Florida boys would’ve been an insult to Gasol, who was a top-10 stalwart for four years or so.  Age, injuries, and the lack of explosiveness that follow have steadily eroded his impact.  Not so long ago, Pau’s versatility enabled him  to seamlessly mesh with any frontcourt partner, from those with skill-sets as divergent as Lamar Odom’s and Andrew Bynum’s.  Now, Pau requires a narrow fit.  He needs to play the 5, but can’t protect the basket on his own.   His range stretches to the three point line, but he’s marginalized unless paired with a big man who can keep defenses honest while he manipulates the post.  He passes like a point guard, but can’t keep up with most 4s. His  teammates love him, but he lacks the toughness and edge to deter opponents from taking cheap shots on them.  So he needs an athletic, shot-blocking 4 with deep range and the grit to be the team’s enforcer.   Not many of those guys out there.  That rare combination inspires the selection of the guy just ahead of him on this list.

Horford would be a household name if he hadn’t been mired in Atlanta’s mediocrity loop for his entire career.  A better athlete than his gets credit for, Al’s game features an effective inside-outside combination reminiscent of Duncan’s.   That he’s also a plus defender raises questions as to why he’s not higher on this list, as he was on ESPN’s NBA Rank.  In a word: impact. Surround Al with a middling supporting cast and you’ll get middling results. Horford’s not driving your team through tough playoff opponents.   Noah just might.  Yes, he needs a player of Rose’s caliber to get there (no doubt, a swap Rose for J. Smoove  adds a few notches to Horford’s belt).  But watch the Bulls closely, and you’ll see that it’s Noah, not Rose, who the team feeds on for energy.  Noah’s defense justifiably demands the spotlight, but he’s also the most skilled passing big man not named Gasol. You couldn’t go wrong with any one of these three.  Compelled to grab one, Noah’s ability to productively translate his intensity gives him the edge.

30.  Mike Conley (ESPN #32, SI #39).  Fifteen years ago, Conley would have had several all-star games and a shoe commercial.  Today, WestbrookRosePaulKyrieRondoDwillWallCurryParker have relegated him to the NBA’s cast of not quite good enough mini-stars unknown to the casual fan.  The closer you look at Memphis’s roster, however, the more apparent it becomes that Conley’s deserving of more credit – if not fame – than he gets.

Jared Bayless offers his condolences about the lack of a shoe contract for Conley.

Jared Bayless offers his condolences about the lack of a shoe contract for Conley.

The Grizz employ no other competent shot creator.  From 1-3, the lineup features zero gifted scorers.  Blessed as he is to play with an offensive savant like Gasol and a go to post scorer in Randolph, beyond that, the cupboard’s not exactly teeming with talent in Memphis these days.   But Conley gets the most from them, and continues to add to a game that already boasts a dangerous three point shot, great handle, and superior finishing ability.   As much as he’s underappreciated on offense, it’s his stellar defense on opposing points that separate him from the pack of guards nipping at his heals.

To those guys, and the rest of the crew who just missed the cut – Holiday, Lawson, Bosh, Hibbert, David West and Josh Smith among them –  I offer a tip of the hat, my condolences, and a ray of hope: maybe next year fellas.

2 responses

  1. Great to get more thoughtful analysis and less pure stats! Liked the post but I will be interested to see how you justify picking 15 players ahead of Carmelo who I think is easily a top ten guy. Also, is Damian Lillard really that good? I haven’t seen that much of him and I know he’s a great prospect but it seems like he should have to do more to earn such a high ranking. Anyway, looking forward to the top 15…when’s it coming out?

    • @Scott: Thanks for the kind words. Carmelo was one of the tougher calls I had to make. So dynamic, but so deficient in every aspect of the game that doesn’t include scoring. (Okay, he’s a pretty good rebounder too.) I’ll wait till after releasing the top 15 to give more thorough insights into my rationale for the rankings.

      Expect to see it this afternoon.

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