The Fantastic Five

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We’re now less than two weeks away from the start of the NBA pre-season, and about a month out from the regular season itself—getting excited yet? Well, to whet your appetite and start a heated debate like this one—here at BALLnROLL we’ve decided to follow ESPN’s and Sport Illustrated’s lead in ranking the best players in the league, with a slight twist: we thought it would be interesting to rank the best guy at each position, with some honorable mentions thrown in.

Let us know in the comments section whether you agree or vehemently disagree with the following selections.

 

Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons


Best point guard in the NBA: Chris Paul
(Honorable mentions: Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose)

If there’s one position where the NBA’s blessed with an abundance of talent, it’s at point-guard. There have been many great floor generals in NBA history—Magic, Isiah Thomas, Oscar Robertson, John Stockton, among others—but never has there been an era, like this one, when so many über-talented point guards have played in the league at the same time. To underscore my point, I was forced to leave the following guys off my honorable mentions list: Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams, Kyrie Irving, Ty Lawson, Steph Curry, Damien Lillard, John Wall and Jrue Holiday. All those guys are stars, or have the potential to be, and at least four of them are genuine superstars.

While Irving, Rose (assuming he makes a successful return), and Westbrook, will battle it out in the coming years for the title of best point-guard in the league, that belt currently belongs to Chris Paul. The Clippers’ leader has been the best point-guard in the league for the past five or six seasons and is everything you’d want out of your floor general. Last season CP3 had the third best P.E.R. in the league (26.4), only behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Paul sees the floor brilliantly—knowing who’s open and who he needs to get going scoring-wise during a game—and has led the league in assists per game twice, only once in his career being outside of the top-four in that category. Defensively he’s more than solid as well, leading the league in steals per game for the past five seasons.

Scoring-wise Paul is a threat from the outside (averaging 35 per cent from three for his career), is deadly from mid-range, and great at finishing around the basket. And speaking to that last point, no player his size is able to create space so intelligently and get off consistently great shots late in games, the way Paul can. This season CP3 will once again lead a Clippers team with a more than decent chance of winning the title. They have a talent-laden roster, but their chances of glory begin and end with the league’s best point-guard.

 

Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons


Best shooting guard in the NBA: James Harden
(Honorable mentions: Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson)

While point guard is the deepest position in the league, shooting guard might be the shallowest. That’s not to say that the best guys at the 2-spot aren’t transcendent superstars—because they are—but the position has been top-heavy for a while now. Once you move past the top three, there aren’t a whole lot of players that you’d describe as must-see talents—I probably won’t be telling my grandkids about Monta Ellis and Jamaal Crawford, even though you could make the argument that they’re among the top 10 best 2-guards in the NBA right now.

That being said, the three guys that make up the elite at the position are special, special players. But while Kobe Bryant (somehow defying Father Time) and Dwyane Wade—24 All-Star appearances and eight championships between them—have vied for the title of best shooting guard for the past eight seasons, a superstar emerged last season to usurp the crown: The Beard, James Harden.

At just 24, Harden has many great years ahead of him, and last season, as the main man in Houston, he emerged from the shadow cast by Durant and Westbrook in OKC and became a genuine superstar. Harden averaged 25 points, four rebounds, and almost six assists per game, leading a young and talented Rockets team to the playoffs. Harden is a scoring machine, but he does it in a variety of ways. He can pull up for 3-pointers, has a nice mid-range game, and might be the best player in the NBA at getting to the free-throw line. Last year he made 792 trips to the charity stripe, more than any other player. What’s more, Harden is a willing and very able passer. With Dwight Howard on the team this season, the Rockets are going to wreak absolute havoc on the pick-n-roll, and Harden might have even more space with which to do his damage.

 

Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons


Best Small-Forward in the NBA: LeBron James
(Honorable Mentions: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George)

It doesn’t feel right having to rank the best small-forward in the league, because even though the answer’s fairly obvious, it feels wrong to regulate the rest of the talent to mere ‘honorable mentions. Carmelo Anthony led the league in scoring last season—a notable achievement in itself—and in almost any other era, Kevin Durant would be the best player in the league. Just check out his numbers (courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com) from last season and let them resonate for a while:
 
 
G GS MP FG FGA  FG%  3P   3PA 3P%  FT  FTA  FT%  ORB  DRB  TRB  AST  STL  BLK  TOV  PF  PTS 
81 81
38.5
9
17.7 
 .510 
1.7 
 4.1 .416
8.4 
9.3 .905  .6  7.3 7.9 4.6  1.4 1.3 3.5  1.8  28.1

 

 
Statistically Durant may have put up one of the best seasons in NBA history. His averages are ridiculous (28-7-4-1-1) but it’s his shooting percentages that really make his season historical. Durant joined Larry Bird, Steve Nash, Reggie Miller, and Mark Price as the only players in NBA history to finish the year with the coveted 50-40-90 shooting split. And yet, as I alluded to, the best small-forward in the NBA isn’t KD, but King James.

LeBron may not have put himself in the 50-40-90 club, but his shooting percentages last season were astounding nonetheless: averaging 56 per cent from the field and 40 per cent from beyond the arc. Incredibly James had six straight games in the middle of the season where he shot 60 per cent from the field, scoring at least 30 points in each of those games. James led the league in P.E.R. last season (31.6), as he has for the past six seasons, but it’s in the post-season where James has set himself apart from his small-forward rivals, including Durant. James led Miami to their second straight championship, averaging 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists per game, dropping 37 points in Game 7 of the Finals. On the under-appreciated defensive end, James guarded all five positions at times and was partly responsible for shutting down Tony Parker in the Finals. Again, in any other era KD would be the best small-forward, and player in the game, but not in this one. Not right now, at least.

Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons
 
Best power forward in the NBA: Kevin Love
(Honorable mentions: LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan)
Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, the power-forward position was dominated by Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and, to a lesser extent (as Zach Lowe recently pointed out), Chris Webber. Duncan, KG, and Dirk are all future first-ballot Hall-of-Famers (C-Webb? Who knows.) and all three are still playing at a phenomenal level relative to their advanced ages—Duncan is still playing at an All-Star level, in fact. But the power-forward position has undergone an infusion of new talent over the past few years.

Five years from now it’s a good bet that the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, will have staked his claim as the best power-forward in the game. He has the skill-set to do so, but will need to refine his offensive game over the next couple seasons to move up the ladder. Right now the top three power forwards in the league are LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Love. Along with Westbrook, Griffin might be the most dissected player in the league, but he’s a 20-10 threat every night and if he can continue working on his jump-shot (and free-throws!) he could take his game to the next level. Aldridge, although not quite as athletic as Griffin, has more range offensively—he’s a real threat away from the basket, as well as close to it.

Aldridge and Griffin may excel in particular facets of the game, but neither man has as good an all-round game at the 4-spot as the league’s best power forward, Kevin Love. Last season Love missed 64 games due to a (somewhat self-inflicted) hand-injury and his lack of game-sharpness was reflected in his poor efficiency when he did play. But prior to last season Love demonstrated that he can combine great efficiency and great production. Love averaged 26 points per game in the 2011-12 season, on 45 per cent shooting.

Where he really separates himself from his aforementioned rivals, however, is his relatively newfound ability to shoot the 3, which creates match-up nightmares for the opposition as his opposite number is uncomfortably drawn away from the paint. Love averaged 37 per cent from 3 two seasons ago, and 41 per cent a season before that. As well as his scoring abilities Love might be the most natural rebounder in the NBA—the first man since Moses Malone to put up a 30-30 line—with a healthy proportion of his rebounds coming on the offensive glass, providing his team with lots of extra possessions. If Love can work a little on his defense (still lagging behind his offensive game), and most importantly for the T-Wolves, if he can stay healthy; this season he should underscore his status as the world’s best power-forward.
 
 
Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons
 
Best center in the NBA: Dwight Howard
(Honorable mentions: Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Tyson Chandler)
A solid, two-way center has always been the most sought-after commodity in the game. Throughout NBA history teams have followed the old mantra of always selecting a talented big-man in the draft, over a talented guard, with the idea that centers with real talent are infinitely rarer that all-star caliber guards. This has gotten some teams in trouble, however—most notably the Portland Trail Blazers who selected two injury-prone centers (Sam Bowie and Greg Oden) because of their potential to be game changers, over ‘surefire’ superstars, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.
 
When big-men do ‘come good’ the payoff is huge. Tyson Chandler was the missing piece that the Dallas Mavericks required to get over their championship hump—anchoring their defense and providing the rebounding and toughness that they had been lacking. Chandler continues to fulfill this role with the Knicks, although last year’s injury hit season was disappointing. In Indiana Roy Hibbert has developed from a solid defensive center, with no offensive game, into the two-way juggernaut that obliterated the Knicks and Heat in last season’s playoffs. He now requires a double-team fairly consistently. And last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol, anchors the Grizzlies with his fantastic rim protection, positional awareness; and on the offensive end, his brilliant passing and solid mid-range game.
 
While Hibbert and Gasol had great 2012-13 campaigns, the best center in the NBA did not. In fact, last season was a disaster for Dwight Howard. His numbers were down across the board and he looked uncharacteristically sluggish on defense. But Howard had a disastrous season only relative to his high standards. Howard still managed to average 17.1 points a game—playing hurt and on a team dominated by Kobe—and led the league in rebounding (12.6 per game). At his best Howard should be a 20 and 15 guy every night and this year in Houston he could come close to those numbers again. Howard is often criticized for his one-dimensional offensive game, and for his appalling bad free-throw numbers (rightly so), but no player, with the exception of LeBron, can be as big a game-changer as Howard. In Orlando he led an okay, but not great, group of players to the NBA Finals; anchoring the team with his defense, and creating space on offense for the team’s non-athletic shooters. He can fulfill a similar role in Houston. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year should be healthier this season (recovery from back surgery is no joke) and that should be reflected in better play at the defensive end and great mobility offensively, leading to better overall production. Scary.

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