After a quick recap of the ground rules and inspiration for these ratings, we’ll unveil the game’s best 15 players.
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.
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 II: “Championship Cornerstones & Transcendent Talents”
1. Lebron James (ESPN: #1; SI: #1): Can’t imagine that there’s anything controversial about this. Leaving his place among the game’s greats for another time, Lebron’s the NBA’s clear-cut alpha dog today. His game has reached the rare air breathed only by Shaq, Duncan, and Kobe in recent history. Like their games, we needn’t appraise the individual components of Lebron. His absolute dominance requires no special analysis.
Given his transcendence, not even a Lebron hater can deny him the place he’s earned here. Of Lebron, I would ask only that he make us feel better about doing so. Quit this routine. Seriously, watch the whole two minutes — Lebron’s flopping is worse than I’d even imagined. No one cares that it can be effective. Leave it to Battier or Birdman. It’s unbecoming of LeBron’s status. Sell the contact at the rim, but don’t sell-out your dignity with that garbage.
Even if they’re not exactly nipping at his heals, there is reason for Lebron’s would be rivals to continue their pursuit. I’m still not convinced that Lebron’s a killer, although I’m equally uncertain whether he’ll need to be one. And his resurgence against the Spurs seems to have reduced to meaningless, if not entirely forgotten the return of his deer-in-the-headlights act in the collective consciences of NBA analysts. That enigma – Lebron’s inexplicable failures of confidence and spontaneous inability to navigate defenses that dare him to shoot – occurs far too often for a player of his caliber. It remains his biggest (only?) vulnerability, and leaves the door to #1 only slightly ajar for…
2. Kevin Durant (ESPN: #2; SI: #2). He’s stuck in second. And we’ve heard just how much he hates that. Second is lonely place to be right now: the gap between Durant and everyone else is at least as wide as the space he seeks to close to catch Lebron. Much like Lebron, his prolific talents require little elaboration: he’s Larry Bird, if Larry had been three inches taller and possessed all-world athleticism to compliment a less than charismatic, quietly angry personality. (Is Durant the strong-silent type, or an emerging passive-aggressive malcontent? I’m not totally sure.)
The problem for Durant? The distance between him and the rest of the field results more from the muddled state of the pack behind him than anything he’s done to earn the separation. He had the chance to make his case when Russ went down last year. Let’s just say it wasn’t a convincing performance.
A truly transcendent talent should blow up a series against a team like Memphis without Russ. KD couldn’t do it. True, his supporting cast contributed little to the cause. But even without Westbrook, that’s not an abysmal team along the lines of say, the 2006 Lakers that Kobe nearly carried past a Suns team vastly superior to the Grizz KD faced. At worst, OKC should have been an elite defensive team that could be sufficiently propped up on offense by a scorer of Durant’s reputed ilk. The problem was and is, Durant can’t seem to impose his will on the game the same way guys like Jordan, Lebron, Kobe, Wade, and even Westbrook and Rose have or do. Largely, that strikes me as the result of inexperience in a playmaking (as opposed to shot making) role. Can he learn how? I’m not so sure. Six weeks without Russ gives him ample opportunity to answer the question.
3. Russel Westbrook (ESPN: #5; SI: #5). Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Such was the case as OKC went out with a murmur sans the straw that stirs its drink. Russ is indeed the engine that drives the Thunder. More aggressive and passionate than Durant, his energy is contagious. Of course, Russ isn’t just a hustle guy. He’s the game’s best athlete not named Lebron. This means he gets to the basket at will, and displays precisely zero reluctance to do so. Featuring an underrated midrange game he’s developed over the past several seasons, we’re beginning to see shades of early millennium Kobe in his game. If Westbrook can smooth his rough edges on offense, and harness his intensity to become the lock-down defender he should be, perhaps he creates some space from the crowded field of contenders for this #3 spot.
Choosing from a pack that features Derek Rose, Chris Paul, Harden, Curry, Dwight, and Kobe, this is the most difficult selection. A spot that should belong to Derek Rose, uncertainty about his performance after a year away from the game prevents him from claiming it. A spot that could belong to Chris Paul escapes him in the wake of mounting playoff losses in spite of the sufficient talent that has surrounded him. A spot that might one day belong to Harden should he thrive under the pressure that Dwight brought to town. Curry’s ankles and Kobe’s Achilles are too risky with healthier options available. Once entrenched between #2 and #4, I can’t imagine selecting Howard until he again exhibits the athleticism, motivation, and sanity that characterized his youth.
By default then, it’s Westbrook. True, he has his own injury concerns. But this is not a pattern, nor is it sufficiently serious to materially downgrade his stock in an 82 game season. For now, Russ’s demonstrated ability to change games when it matters vault him ever so slightly past Rose and Paul.
4. Derek Rose (ESPN: #9 ; SI: #12 ). Some may justifiably bristle at the sight of Rose so near the top of this list on the heels of his perplexing decision to sit out the playoffs last year. And I too have my doubts about his once untouchable resolve. So why are a few preseason performances enough to overcome those questions? First, Rose reminded us that he and Westbrook are the only players who can harness their athleticism to the same degree as Lebron. He simply is more dynamic than anyone below him on this list. Second, Rose is a winner – or at least he thinks he is, which is half the battle. This distinguishes him from Harden, Curry, Howard, and, at least for now, Irving. It didn’t take long for interviews to surface featuring Rose explaining that Miami has his title. I like that, even if it is debased from reality. He’s not trying to be friends with Lebron. He wants to push him off of the mountain top. Third, Rose hasn’t hit is ceiling just yet, and is just now entering a two year window in which we can expect him to do so. From athlete, to athlete with range, to athlete with range and a creative in-between game, Rose’s history of development indicates that there more is more to come. Lock down defender and dead-eye shooter remain attributes he has yet to realize. At #4, I’m projecting him to add one, but not both to his repertoire this season.
5. Chris Paul (ESPN #3, SI #3 ). CP3 remains atop the list of pure point guards after having distanced himself from the likes of Deron Williams and Rondo in recent seasons. No one is feistier, a feature that makes Paul the disruptive force on defense that belies his easurables. While his competitive drive often manifests in the sort of facial expressions and waddle that strongly indicate more than a bit of a Napolean complex, that same furor makes Paul a natural alpha dog, a role he’s embraced going back to New Orleans. His leadership translates to the court, where Paul’s easily the game’s best floor general, managing shot selection and the clock to great effect. Of course, Paul’s more than an offensive maestro. He shoots at a superior clip from range, and uses his elite ball skills to create efficient opportunities for himself. CP3’s clutch performances cast suspicion on his typical exclusion from the closer conversation. Make the case for Kobe and Carmelo, but give me Paul in the last two minutes. He’s that good.
A top 3 lock as recently as last season, Paul’s descent is the direct result of compounding postseasons debacles that are no longer beyond reproach. Indeed, the annual flameouts now appear to be the rule rather than the exception. Yet, Paul’s inability to carry his team to playoff success has flown under the radar for a variety of reasons. In 2011, he killed the Lakers, and looked very much like the best player in the game, not just the series, while doing so. That the Hornets ultimately lost in 6 could not be laid a his doorstep. He was carrying a squad of incompetents, or so the story goes. Take a closer look. That team’s best lineup featured Paul, Jarret Jack, Trevor Ariza, David West, and Emeka Okafor. It had Carl Landry, Jared Bayless, and Marcus Thornton coming off the bench. The cupboard was not bare. This is not to knock Paul’s exceptional performance in that series. It is to say that the composition of his supporting cast does little to nothing to absolve him of responsibility for coming up short.
But that was the Lakers. Even on the precipice of a momentous decline, Gasol, Bynum, and Bryant were a handful, especially without the benefit of home court advantage. Let’s discard it as an anomaly for the moment. Enter the 2012 Clippers. Paul, Caron Butler, and Blake Griffin were most often flanked by some combination of Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Nick Young, Randy Foye, DeAndre Jordan, Kenyon Martin, and Reggie Evans. Not bad. That is considerably more talent than surrounded, say, Durant last postseason, Lebron in Cleveland, Dirk on Dallas’s title team, or Dwight in Orlando. None of those teams featured a legitimate #2 option like Blake. Each would’ve been drastically improved by swapping the aforementioned nine players for the cast surrounding its superstar. And yet, three of those teams went to the finals, while OKC stumbled precisely where the 2012 Clippers did, hitting a wall in route to a second round exit.
Then there’s last year. Swap Jamal Crawford for Mo Williams, Matt Barnes for Young, Odom and Turiaf for Martin and Evans, and a much improved 2013 Bledsoe for the 2012 model, and what you have is a very similar, if not slightly improved supporting cast. Yet, the result was worse. Memphis bounced Paul’s Clips in the first round.
This isn’t good. A guy who’s been called the best point guard since Isaiah Thomas should do better. In his 9th season, the excuses are piling up faster than the playoff wins: his knees flared up at an inopportune time, New Orleans was dysfunctional, Billups was hurt, Blake was hurt, and Vinny Del Negro was, well, Vinny Del Negro. At some point, Paul needs to demonstrate that he can take over a high-level playoff series simply because he’s that much better than everyone else on the court. If he can’t do that now, you have to begin to wonder if he ever will.
6. James Harden (ESPN #4, SI #11). In some ways, Harden’s built his reputation as a top tier player on his lack of a track record. That is, it seems that Harden benefits from the assumption that since he’s displayed fewer flaws than many of his contemporaries, he doesn’t have any. (This comports with widespread rationalization of his 2012 Finals disappearing act as merely a youthful stumbling block.) A better distributor than Westbrook, superior shooter to Rose, more versatile than Curry, and much younger than Bryant or Wade, in the eyes of many a beholder, Harden has nowhere to go but up.
True enough on all counts. Grabbing the spotlight last season, Harden showed that he’s easily the best 2-guard to enter the league since Wade. As the man in Houston, he unleashed an impressive offensive repertoire, though it became clear that his status as a slight plus defender was directly tied to his role as a third wheel offensively. The spotlight’s about to get a whole lot brighter. Just like things aren’t as much fun in OKC these days, raised expectations in Houston are bound to create a less exuberant environment. And that’ll lead us to scrutinize Harden more closely. Is he committed to winning? Does he show up in the big moments? Can he take his game to the next level? These are all questions that haven’t yet been asked. Rest assured that the honeymoon period is over.
7. Steph Curry (ESPN#6 SI#15). The frightening display he put on against Denver and San Antonio last spring had everyone rethinking Curry’s ceiling. No, this was not Reggie Miller in a smaller, less abrasive package. Nor was it a more fragile Ray Allen. Curry’s ability to create his own shot from anywhere on the court meant that the comparisons to the game’s best shooters were no longer warranted. He’s more than that. When his ankles allow him to be, that is.
That’s really the only question mark left for Steph. If he can address it successfully, it’s hard to envision anything stopping his continued ascension on this list. If not, however, Curry can’t be the guy on any team. True contenders can’t proceed in suspended terror as to when the floor is going to give out beneath them.
8. Kobe Bryant (ESPN: #25; SI #9). I’m not going to make the thorough, extensive case that Kobe deserves here. It requires indulging too many silly arguments forwarded principally by those who, for one reason or another, prefer to see the Mamba on the decline.
Some come from those whose minds have been made up. They don’t like Kobe, as a player more than as a person. (Henry Abbott, we’re talking about you.) His game never squared with the unselfish brand of basketball and more embracing brand of leadership that they revere. Give them Tim Duncan. He makes them feel better. As the miles increase on Kobe’s odometer, they detect blood in the water. They relish the opportunity to pick apart his game to validate long-held opinions they’ve concealed just beneath the stubborn surface of the reality of Kobe’s performance. That began some time ago. Kobe’s torn Achilles merely accelerated the pace at which the sharks are closing in for the kill.
Others trade in probabilities. That is, they unscrupulously employ every new metric to conclude that the odds favor Kobe’s demise. In a sense, they’re right. Every year, elite level performance becomes less likely for Kobe. Eventually, the house wins; no doubt, this will be offered as evidence of these metrics’ predictive power. Trouble is, Kobe’s long since distanced himself from the data used to project his precipitous decline. By all means, those numbers suggest that it should’ve occurred 200 some games ago. There are no data points for a 35 year old shooting guard who entered the league as a teenager and played heavy minutes in dozens of playoff series and seven finals before averaging 40 minutes a game in his 17th season. When the house eventually wins, the untold story will be that it happened only after many years of losing.
Still more are simply content to grab the headlines. Whatever motivates the absurdity that Roy Hibbert is a better player than Kobe lacks substance. The formula for these rankings demands something that ESPN’s do not. Bet your title hopes on Roy Hibbert instead of Kobe. Cast your lot with Chris Bosh, understanding that LeBron and Wade are off the table. Put your faith in John Wall to win a playoff series. Bet that Chauncey Billups is a sound model for Bryant’s return to the court, and please do invest heavily in Kevin Love’s ability to stay healthier. Best of luck in your endeavors.
Rant behind me, I can now admit that there are of course legitimate questions about Kobe’s ability to rejoin the ranks of the truly elite. To my eye, Kobe first lost a step athletically in 2009, before he went on to win two consecutive titles. It goes without saying then that 2013 Kobe couldn’t do everything that 2006 Kobe could do before the Achilles. That included carrying an offense and checking the opponent’s best perimeter player (from 1 to 3). It meant that Kobe no longer changed every facet of the game through the sheer force of his athletic superiority, like Lebron, Durant, Rose, and Westrbook now do. It meant that the baskets came harder, albeit just as efficiently and frequently as ever.
Ask him to be 2006 Kobe, and you’ll be disappointed. (Right Mike D’Antoni?). Instead, ask him to be the offensive focal point without being it’s only shot creator. Ask him to realize that his no longer transcendent physical gifts demand increased engagement in a defense that has a system. Ask him to bring back the suffocating defense he displayed on Lebron, Kyrie, and Brandon Jennings only in critical spurts. And ask him to play the last six minutes like he always has, with the benefit of having only played 25-30 before then. Make the appropriate requests of him – like Pop has of Duncan and Doc did of KG – and perhaps only LeBron and Durant remain beyond of 2013 Kobe’s reach.
The catch is, we can’t be certain that we’re getting last spring’s Kobe this year. If we do, Kobe can get to #3. To the extent that we don’t, his #8 ranking is vulnerable, just not #25 vulnerable. Having encouraged the naysayers to back a different horse, I’m betting on Kobe. #prayforthebear
9. Dwight Howard. (ESPN #7, SI #7). For Dwight this is either too high or too low. It is nonetheless here that his considerable upside outweighs nagging questions about his health, seriousness about winning, and, well, his intelligence.
In Dwight’s case, success requires showing that last year was mostly a fluke, that he hadn’t really recovered from back surgery for much of the year, and, well, that he wasn’t really trying by the time that he had. In short, Dwight needs to prove that the guy from the 2009 Finals remains very much alive. If he can’t flash that sort of athleticism again, Houston has a problem. Dwight’s 6’9”, and his impersonation of a post-game won’t age well. The latter part of his career becomes akin to a rich man’s Ben Wallace, whose last several years were a testament to the limits on 6’9” centers whose explosiveness deserts them. In that case, forget the top ten. Dwight belongs with Hibbert, Noah, and Horford, valuable big men who can anchor a defense, but lack the ability to dominate a game. But if he can rejuvenate his career, he becomes a man without a rival. He cruises through inferior big men and leaves us all wondering what the hell we were thinking to have rated him anywhere outside the top five.
10. Paul George. (ESPN #13, SI #25 There’s really no perfect place for a player like George whose stock is so very fluid. On the one hand, he finished last season 84th in PER. On the other, only Lebron and Duncan looked better in the playoffs.
We know that he’s 6’9”, has a sweet stroke from 3, and that unlike so many of his peers, he employs his considerable athletic gifts to great effect on defense. Yet it is not that package alone that inspires this ranking. Rather, George’s salient attribute that emerged in those playoffs convinces me that he belongs here: he has some dog in him. Like Westbrook, Rose, and Paul, George isn’t awestruck by Lebron. He thinks he can get him. Like I said, that’s half the battle. It’s not only an advantage on the court, but a driver of development off of it. So while George’s game requires significant refinement, there’s reason to believe that he’ll reach his tremendous potential.
11. Kyrie Irving (ESPN #8, SI #20). Kyrie’s the consensus next man up in the golden age of point guards. He’s the unusual case of a player without a single elite skill propelled by stellar skills across the board. He’s a great athlete but not of the Lebron-Westrbook-Rose order. He’s a floor general, but not of the Chris Paul ilk. Kyrie’s place here owes to the balance of his game. If there’s a hole, I’m not seeing it.
A great handle coupled with an superior first step get him to the basket at will, and create enough space to fire a shot that’s second to just a few from most anywhere on the court. Dynamic in the fourth quarter, what remains for Kyrie is to put it all together in games that matter. Still, he’s shown enough in games that don’t to merit a top ten spot in these rankings.
12. Dirk Nowitzki (ESPN #13 SI #26) Tim Duncan (ESPN #16, SI #6). They’ve still got it, even if the “it” they’ve got isn’t what it once was. Always worthy competitors, although not ever really rivals, their paths have become intertwined over the past three years. Having emerged unscathed from the 2011 playoffs with the Finals MVP and title in hand, Dirk disappeared. It almost feels like he retired. And maybe he should have. The past several years and dozen or so Cuban decisions certainly haven’t been kind to him. He’s past his prime. Carmelo and Durant remind us of the explosive offensive arsenal Dirk once wielded more frequently. So I could understand those who would demote Dirk.
But I think there’s still something there. After Carmelo and Durant, no one creates more high percentage shots for himself. And Dirk’s proven leadership more than offsets the advantages of Carmelo’s youth given his demonstrated inability to lead.
A more powerful case is made by one Tim Duncan: in their generation, isn’t Duncan the better choice, especially coming off of his best season in 5 years? Prime to prime, it’s no contest. Duncan wins out. It’s easy to forget that we’ve not seen Duncan’s prime for at least 5 years. His incredible playoff performance might have worked amnesia on many an analyst, one postseason doesn’t render meaningless a five-year track record that’s far from elite. Nor does it necessarily translate going forward. (Ask Dirk about his experience following a capstone season.)
Over the past four seasons, Duncan’s averaged less than 30 minutes a game. However revered he became last June, in 2011, he wasn’t considered among the best 12 players in the Western Conference. This was no mistake. He averaged 13 points and 8 rebounds that year. Yet, the same crowd who would have us believe that the undefeated force of gravity warrants Kobe’s downgrade in the wake of 5 consistent elite level years now invites us to ignore the far better grounded probability that Duncan’s resurgence at 35 was more outlier than trend. Perplexing indeed.
This really is not a knock on Duncan. Mostly, you know what you’re getting with him this year: he’s a lock for about 17 points, 9 rebounds, and a blocked shot in the somewhere between 25-29 minutes he’ll play in roughly 60 games. If that were the end of it, he wouldn’t make this list at all. Duncan’s also the pillar of the San Antonio culture that’s proved both remarkably agile and resilient. Guys like Danny Green, Gary Neal, and even Kawhi Leonard wouldn’t perform at the same level without him. And when the games begin to matter, Duncan still possesses an elite gear that few can match.
What part of that production are we not getting from Dirk? He plays 3 to 5 more minutes every game, scores more points more efficiently, and due to the matchups he creates, is a superior offensive focal point. No question, Duncan has a slight edge in rebounding and a wide advantage defensively (however smaller than it once was.) Like Duncan, Dirk can still raise his game opportunistically, and remains at the heart of everything his team does. So the distinction isn’t clear cut.
We do have one opportunity to compare apples to apples. Scrutinize each player’s most recent playoff run and it’s hard not to come away giving the slight edge to Dirk. The pride of Germany did what Duncan could not (however close he came). He slayed the giant, and did so with a much higher degree of difficulty. First,where Dirk swept the two time champion Lakers at full strength, Duncan orchestrated the Spurs route of a Lakers squad missing not just Kobe, but 6 of its best 8 players, including both of its point guards (Kobe, Nash, Metta, Blake, Joran Hill, and Jodie Meeks missed all or most of the series). Huge advantage Dirk. Second, where Duncan’s Spurs dispatched a dangerous young Warriors squad in impressive fashion (even though Curry’s ankle issues helped more than a little), Dirk’s Mavs struggled with a mediocre Portland team depending on the heroics of Brandon Roy playing on one knee. Advantage Duncan. Third, where Dirk withstood a lethal barrage from the no longer too young trio in OKC, Duncan’s Spurs had the good fortune to avoid the Thunder after Memphis sent them packing sans Westbrook. With all due respect to the bruising Grizzlies, a team featuring zero prolific scorers simply does not compare to the Thunder at full tilt. Decided advantage Dirk again. Fourth, we all know what happened in those finals. No one choked. Most came away with more respect for Duncan after narrowly losing a series he should’ve won. Fact is he did not, and Dirk did, in decisive fashion nonetheless.
Fifth, as the unquestioned alpha dog in Dallas, Dirk carried a supporting cast inferior to the talent Duncan led to the finals. Chandler was the perfect compliment to Dirk, but Kidd and Marion barely resembled their former selves by 2011. For all of Terry’s brash successes that season, he can’t be mentioned in the same breath with Tony Parker. Conversely, whether Duncan or Tony drove the Spurs reemergence remains subject to debate. While I can’t agree, many already hold out Kawhi Leonard as an all-star level player. Add dead-eye Danny Green to the equation, and it’s clear that Duncan had more help. Taken together, this means that Dirk accomplished what Duncan could not all the while facing a considerably higher degree of difficulty.
But what have you done for me lately Dirk? I can’t fault Dirk for Cuban’s bizarre non-effort to defend Dallas’s title. Still, it’s been more than two years since we’ve seen Dirk perform at a high level on the big stage, while Duncan did so last summer. While that helps Duncan’s case, is it crazy to think that Dirk’s extended offseasons leave him in a better position to produce this year? I think not. And I give Dirk a slight edge based on my admittedly speculative assessment that he has a little more left in the tank.
14. Tony Parker (ESPN #12 , SI #4). Long of the opinion that Duncan, not Parker deserved the lion’s share of the credit for the Spurs enduring success, Parker began to change my mind last season. Much like it was impossible to be certain whether Kobe had eclipsed Shaq in 2003, definitive evidence of Parker’s rise above Duncan is unlikely to emerge. Unlike Kobe, absent unforeseen circumstances, Parker’s career path is such that he won’t have a good chance to prove that he can do it without Timmy.
I don’t subscribe to the opinion held by at least some that Parker deserves MVP consideration every season (at his own position, Rose, Westbrook, and Paul are clearly better). But to watch the array of shots he created for himself and his teammates against Miami before succumbing to an ankle (and thus becoming vulnerable to Lebron’s three-steps back defense) was to at least understand the rational underpinning that perception. Years of Pop, Duncan, and Manu have sharpened the once erratic Parker. Nothing shakes him anymore, and he’s still young enough to maintain an unmatched ability to get-to and finish-in the paint.
Parker is indeed to regular season MVP for the Spurs. He’s carried them when Manu and Tim could not for the past three to five seasons. But he’s to really take the reigns from Duncan. He too misses a lot of games, having averaged 65 games over the past four seasons, and his slightly superior offensive production of 18 points and 7 assists during that same period is insufficient to close the gap that remains between them as a result of his status as a net-negative defender. Perhaps this is the year the Spurs genuinely become Tony’s team. Perhaps not. In either event, Parker’s earned his spot among the league’s top 15 players.
15. Dwayne Wade (ESPN #18, SI #8). Like D12, for Wade, this is either too high or too low. Of course, as little as three years ago Wade, you could make a good case for Wade at or near the top of such list. Proving that he still belongs among the game’s elite requires means following the Jordan and Kobe blueprint for aging two guards. To date, Wade’s failed miserably to do so. Never the shot maker that Kobe is, and lacking Jordan’s refined post-game (not to mention 2 critical inches), Wade hasn’t found a way to impact the game the way he once did. Add to the degree of difficulty significant knee concerns, and learning to play off ball with Lebron, and what you have is a recipe for the guy we saw last year in the playoffs. That guy wasn’t a top 25 player, let alone top ten. So Wade’s at a crossroads. Because I can’t recall a player of his caliber falling so far, so fast, I’m betting that Wade finds a way to make it work.