Did I stretch 2013's edition into a 23,000-word trilogy spread over the course of four weeks? Yup. Were my readers happy about that decision? NO! NOOOOOOOOO! Not in the least. Josh from Albany summed up everyone's feelings: "What the hell is this — Lord of the Rings?"
That's exactly what this is! It's The Lord of the Rings! If you want to know the truth, spreading the top 50 over four weeks didn't screw up my overall rankings too much. Only five players saw their rankings get affected, for better and worse.
STEPH CURRY: My initial Curry ranking (16th) was thrown into a paper shredder thanks to Curry's transformation into a new NBA playoff superhero, the Human Heat Check. More on this later.
KLAY THOMPSON: I ranked him 47th in Part 1, noting that "If there weren't a 68 percent chance that he's submitting a deer-in-the-headlights performance in the Denver series, I'd have him ranked higher." And then BOOM! No deer, no headlights. Thompson's Game 2 in San Antonio was one of the best two-way playoff games anyone's had this spring. He'll be 15 spots higher next year. Is it too early to get excited for a Heat-Warriors Finals? It's too early, right?
MIKE CONLEY JR.: Even if I'm a charter member of the Rudy Gay Is Severely Overrated committee, I never anticipated the addition-by-subtraction elements of that trade: (a) Memphis becoming Conley's team, and (b) Conley making a semi-leap in the playoffs for a legitimate contender. Throw in his suddenly agreeable contract (three more years at $26.34 million combined) and he's absolutely a top-50 guy. If I had a do-over, I'd give him Paul Pierce's spot and stick Conley at no. 37 in that Rondo/Chandler group. I'd also appreciate a do-over on this tweet from two and a half years ago:
Mike Conley??? Are you sure it wasn't 5 million for 45 years? RT @francium34: ESPN reports Conley gets 5 year 45M extension.
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) November 2, 2010
JOAKIM NOAH: Spent the past three weeks limping around on bad wheels, gutting out overtime games, playing with heart and soul, dominating the glass, playing textbook help defense and becoming the Best-Case Scenario Pro we always wanted him to be at Florida. Once upon a time, nobody knew if he'd get there, as evidenced by this guy getting picked three spots ahead of him.
SERGEBALLU LAMU SAYONGA LOOM WALAHAS JONAS HUGO IBAKA: Here's what I initially wrote about Serge for Part 3 (when he was penciled in at no. 17):
Blossomed into a legitimate third banana, averaging a 13-8 with three blocks and making 50 percent of his shots from 10 feet or more. Not a misprint! Every time a Serge 18-footer leaves you muttering "That's a terrible shot oh wait, I forgot he makes those!" He's a freak athlete with a little "dark alley" in him, a budding provocateur who gives OKC a much-needed edge. He's also the league's third-best out-of-nowhere blocker behind Larry Sanders and LeBron, a starter on the "Guys Who Make You Look Over Your Shoulder At All Times" All-Stars. He's only 23, with a four-year, $49 million extension kicking in next season.1 And he's named "Serge Ibaka" — one of those names that's destined for success, whether you're an athlete, rapper, Breaking Bad character, vacation island, Disney movie franchise, or whatever else. You're not failing when you're named "Serge Ibaka."
So what happened? After Russell Westbrook went down, everyone assumed Ibaka would pick up some of Westbrook's slack. Nope. Poor Serge doesn't have another gear. You're getting 11 and seven from him, with no low-post production whatsoever, regardless of who is out there. If anything, Westbrook's absence exposed Ibaka as being less of a building block and more of a luxury. That's a HUGE deal. He can't be in the top 20 anymore.
The easy solution: I'm flipping Noah and Ibaka. Ibaka becomes our new no. 31. Noah skyrockets all the way up to no. 17. Please make the appropriate adjustments in your Trade Value scorecards. As for everyone else
GROUP E: "We'll Call You Back; We're Not Done Arguing Internally About This Yet"
18. Dwight Howard
Remember when Mike Tyson came out of prison and wasn't the same boxer anymore, even though he looked like the same guy? That's Dwight Howard since 2011's NBA lockout. He's not a force of nature anymore. The Eye Test backs it up, and so do the results: Howard dragged a 219-102 record from four half-decent Magic teams from 2008 to 2011, then went just 75-55 in these past two seasons once his body started breaking down. There's been a not-so-subtle dip in his offensive numbers
2011: 22.9 PPG, 14.1 RPG, 59% FG, 60% FT, 227 dunks, 26.0 PER (second in NBA)
2013: 17.1 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 58% FG, 49% FT, 187 dunks, 19.4 PER (38th)
and defensively, Dwight isn't the NBA's most impactful player anymore. You would rather have Marc Gasol or Joakim Noah, both of whom are just better at anchoring a defense. Throw in the undeniable injury risks, the maturity issues, and the words "not even a hint of any leadership whatsoever" and, um, why would I want to give him $118 million again? We'll tackle this in detail before free agency kicks off.
GROUP D: "Sorry, There's No Way You Love Him More Than We Do"
17. Joakim Noah
Covered above, and also in Part 2. It's too bad we can't cement Noah's rapid rise up the Trade Value Trilogy by linking to an elaborate music video of his father singing Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" and featuring a Joakim cameo. Wait, what?????????
16. Anthony Davis
Even though a few unlucky injuries cost the Brow a Rookie of the Year award, I'm focusing on a 19-game stretch he played this spring: 31.6 MPG, 16.1 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.7 BPG and 53.3% FG until whoops, he got hurt again. (Stay on the damned court, Brow!) I love his Very Poor Man's McHale/Duncan low-post potential, and I love the roster flexibility that Davis provides: Once his outside shooting improves (and it will), he could be your small-ball 5 (like Chris Bosh in Miami) or your big-ball 4 (like Ibaka in OKC). You could win a title someday with the Brow as your second-best player. New Orleans was lucky
that David Stern owned the Hornets and gave himself the no. 1 overall pick to get him.
15. Paul George
Reader Dave King reminds us that George grew up as a huge Clippers fan — repeat: a huge Clippers fan!!! — but that didn't deter the Clippers from taking the immortal Al-Farouq Aminu two spots ahead of him in the 2010 draft. That's right, the Clippers could have landed Blake Griffin, Paul George and Kyrie Irving2 in back-to-back-to-back drafts! Please add this to your "The Clippers Are Cursed" files.3
Whether George becomes a true franchise guy remains to be seen. Right now, he's "Rudy Gay 2.0" — a feistier defender and much better all-around player, but someone who doesn't shoot well enough to carry an offense (you know, just like Gay). This year, George made 64 percent of his shots at the rim and 34 percent of his shots everywhere else. The league shot 40 percent from 3 to 9 feet, 42 percent from 10 to 15 feet, 38 percent from 16 to 23 feet, and 36 percent on 3s. George went 26 percent, 34 percent, 37 percent and 36 percent. In other words below average. But he just turned 23, and maybe these next few Knicks-Pacers games could alter his NBA destiny.
By the way, I have some advice that will help Paul George become a household name. He should change his number immediately from no. 24 to no. 13. Here's why can you think of anyone being helped by a nickname more than Paul George suddenly becoming "PG-13?" Uh-oh, PG-13 is heating up! Warning, this game contains strong language, violence and a possible heat check! We might have to make this performance rated "R" — it's too hot to handle! Let's make this happen already.
14. Marc Gasol
Any pickup-basketball regular battles an ongoing dilemma: What's it worth to keep playing for as long as possible? If it's super-crowded and you want to stay on the court for a few games, you might suck it up and jump on a team with Pickup Carmelo or Pickup Kobe — a.k.a. a one-on-one guy who will shoot half your team's shots, only he's good enough that you might be able to ride him for two straight hours. But if it's less crowded? You take your chances with people who are fun to play with — a.k.a. unselfish guys who run the floor, know how to pass and cut, keep the ball moving, don't take stupid transition shots, and generally know what they're doing.
And ideally, this is what happens: A few times per year, you'll find the right four guys on a crowded day, everything will click, you'll turn into the '77 Blazers, and you end up laying the smack down, 2013 Heat–style, for six or seven straight.
It's just the best day you can have. It's the greatest. You limp out of there beaming, and when your wife or girlfriend asks you later that night why you're so damned happy, you can't even properly explain it. How can you explain total bliss? I love playing basketball — even now, with my body breaking down and my game decaying to alarming degrees — if only because it's one of the few places left on earth where you can connect with total strangers like that. Age doesn't matter, backgrounds don't matter, nothing matters. You have four teammates, they can be anybody, and you either know how to click with them or you don't.
That's what makes Marc Gasol special, and that's why you can't totally measure him with stats. I voted for him as my first-team All-NBA center. Why? Because he can blend in with any four guys in the league. He'll anchor your defense, grab some rebounds, make every smart pass, post up when you need him. He's a phenomenal leader and chemistry guy. And he's malleable.
For instance, Memphis spent much of the past three years playing a deadly high-low game with Z-Bo down low and Gasol up top, where his passing makes him a weapon. After two straight losses to the Clippers, Memphis switched things around and stuck Gasol down low. That worked, too. So far in the Thunder series, they've been riding Gasol's offense against the Completely & Irrevocably Washed-Up Kendrick Perkins; when the Thunder finally adjust and go small (you know it's coming), Gasol will make the necessary tweaks and figure out a different way to affect the series. Do whatever you want with that dude, it's gonna work. Bill Russell, Bill Walton and Tim Duncan are the three greatest "You'd Want to Play Hoops With Them" big guys ever, but Marc Gasol is no slouch. Remember we had this conversation if you're saying, "I can't believe we have a Miami-Memphis Finals!" in three weeks.4
GROUP C: "Only If They Asked to Leave"
13. Tim Duncan
The one perpetual flaw with the Trade Value concept: San Antonio would never trade Duncan but it also wouldn't make any sense for, say, Portland to trade LaMarcus Aldridge for him. We're splitting the difference and sticking Duncan here. I still have Duncan ranked ahead of Kobe as the greatest player of their generation, if only because everyone forgets just how difficult Kobe was from 2002 through 2007 (an easy-to-forget story line that gets revived in Phil Jackson's insightful memoir, Eleven Rings). Even if I've sung Duncan's praises a kajillion times, most notably in this 2007 column and in my basketball book, please remember the following things:
• He's the greatest power forward of all time. He's also one of the greatest teammates ever. That's why the Spurs never would have discussed trading him, not even internally after about 20 drinks, at any point since 1997.
• He won four titles, two when he was the only All-Star. He's been the best player on every title team.5
• The Spurs NEVER won fewer than 50 games with Duncan (save for the '99 lockout season, when they went 37-13). He's won 70 percent of his games for 16 solid years.
• His per-36 averages for his 16th season (21.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 3.2 blocks, 50.2% FG) mirror his per-36 averages for his entire career (20.7 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.3 blocks, 50.7% FG). There's a decent chance Tim Duncan is an alien. You can't rule it out.6
• Kareem won the Finals MVP award in 1971 and 1985. I always thought that was incredible. Fourteen years apart? Well, Duncan has a chance to do it this spring — even if he hasn't exactly seized control of the Warriors series so far. He won the 1999 Finals MVP, but a 2013 Finals MVP would complete "The Kareem." And if it happens, I can promise you one thing — in 2038, he won't be belly-flopping into a pool on a reality-TV show.7
Last note: I don't think San Antonio will get past this suddenly petrifying Warriors team unless Duncan kicks it up a notch and becomes the best player in the series. The Spurs can't win with 20-and-10 Duncan; they need 27-and-15 Duncan. After all these years, does Tim Duncan have one last old-school throwback playoff performance lurking inside him? And if he does, wouldn't we see it now against the one team he's always owned — the Warriors, a team he'd beaten 47 of 53 times before this series? Uh-oh, I just made Warriors fans crap their pants. Stay tuned.
12. Dirk Nowitzki
One of my favorite NBA lists
That's the 15-Year Club — the only seven NBA players who spent their entire careers with the same franchise, played at least 15 seasons AND won at least one title. You don't just stumble onto that list — all seven are Hall of Famers, with 21 rings among them. Think about what the list means: excellence, durability, longevity, loyalty, championships it's your best-case scenario for a basketball career, basically.
And you need a little luck along the way. I don't know how Schayes and Greer played that long with all the bad sneakers, bad food, bad medical care, scary travel, second-hand smoke and everything else that should have stopped them back then. Havlicek had a Secretariat-size heart and superhuman stamina.8 Duncan nearly signed with Orlando. Kobe's Lakers career nearly fell apart twice. Pierce was nearly traded 935 times. Dirk lucked out with a wealthy owner who always spent enough money to compete (so he never had to pull a KG), as well as one sizable break: During the summer of '04, Dallas was the consensus favorite in the Shaq Sweepstakes when
Kobe forced the Lakers to trade Shaq the Lakers decided to trade Shaq, only Mark Cuban (astutely, as it turned out) made Dirk untouchable.
At the time, that decision was a much bigger deal than anyone remembers now. A rejuvenated, pissed-off Shaq guaranteed you one title, maybe even two. We all knew it. (As it turned out, Miami won in 2006, and probably would have won the previous year had Dwyane Wade not gotten injured.) When the Lakers could only get Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant's contract for him, I ended up creating the Vengeance Scale to figure out exactly where Angry Shaq ranked among the most vengeful people ever, ultimately assigning him an 8.7 (just behind Charles Bronson in every Death Wish movie). And yeah, I ridiculed the Mavericks for keeping Dirk over dealing him for Shaq, too, even calling Dirk "the German Bob McAdoo" (not a compliment). I never thought you could build a championship team around Dirk's offense. A lot of people felt that way. Looking back, resisting that enticing Shaq trade was probably Cuban's third-greatest NBA moment, trailing the time he stared down David Stern after Game 5 of the 2006 Finals, and, of course, this picture.
What happens with Dirk going forward? Kobe, Pierce and Dirk have one thing in common: They don't have to chase a title like Karl Malone did. Dirk controls his own destiny; if he wants to retire in Dallas, Cuban would be delighted. Kobe probably controls his own destiny, even if there's increasing buzz (no, really) that the Lakers would amnesty him if it guaranteed them Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Sadly, Paul Pierce doesn't control his destiny — he's probably getting traded this summer by a team that wants to rebuild. That's the difference between being a star and being a superstar. But if you think Dallas isn't going balls-out after CP3 this summer to give their loyal superstar one last run, you're crazy.9 We might even see Mark Cuban skip a Shark Tank taping this time around! Don't count out Dirk Nowitzki just yet.
11. Blake Griffin
After winning three NCAA titles at UCLA, Sidney Wicks became memorable as an NBA player for four reasons: Portland drafted him no. 2 overall, then Wicks slowly morphed into the first we-used-to-love-him-now-we-hate-him Blazer (the first of many); along with Curtis Rowe and John Y. Brown, he's widely credited in Boston for briefly murdering Celtic Pride and nearly causing Red Auerbach to jump to the Knicks; and he had his butt famously kicked by Calvin Murphy, a legendary NBA fight because Wicks was ONE FOOT TALLER than him.10 I left this reason out: My mom thought Wicks was incredibly handsome and gushed that he looked like a black Omar Sharif. That I remember this all these years later tells you exactly how frightened I was that my least-favorite Celtic might become my stepfather someday. All in all, he's probably the sixth most memorable Sidney ever, trailing Sidney Poitier, Sidney Crosby, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack and Sydney the Whore from Melrose Place.
But here's why Sidney Wicks stands out for NBA/history reasons
He averaged 24.5 points as a rookie, then saw his scoring average drop every year for the next nine years until he retired. Do you realize how hard that is? You have to willingly become 7 percent worse every year for your entire career — it's like intentional atrophy. I don't know whether he's the Dave Stapleton of basketball, or Dave Stapleton was the Sidney Wicks of baseball. But that brings us to Blake Griffin 24 years old, marketable, likable, wildly entertaining, one of the best five forwards in basketball, and one of the best in-game dunkers who ever lived. Should we be concerned by this Wicksian career arc?
Year 1: DNP (knee surgery)
Year 2: 22.5 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 3.8 APG, 51% FG, 64% FT, 16.8 FGA, 8.5 FTA, 1.3 stocks,11 21.9 PER
Year 3: 20.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 3.2 APG, 55% FG, 52% FT, 15.5 FGA, 7.1 FTA, 1.5 stocks, 23.4 PER
Year 4: 18.0 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 54% FG, 66% FT, 13.4 FGA, 5.3 FTA, 1.8 stocks, 22.4 PER
Yeeeeesh. What happened to his rebounding? (Great question.) Why isn't he getting to the line as much? (No clear answer.) Is he shooting more jumpers? (Quick look at HoopData says nope.) Did he lose shots to Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford these past two years? (Probably.) And should we be worried that bigger power forwards can bully him down low, the way his archnemesis Z-Bo did in Round 1? (In all caps: YES.) What about Kirk Goldsberry breaking down Blake's offensive game by saying, "He's obviously great near the basket, but he's below-average everywhere else"? (A big fat YES.)
We always judged Blake on his preposterous potential — well, what happens if he already reached it? His outside shot hasn't improved in three years; opponents beg him to shoot it (especially in the playoffs).12 He can't affect games defensively with his athleticism like, say, Shawn Kemp in the mid-'90s. He isn't a good enough rebounder right now. He isn't big enough to be your small-ball 5, and he's not strong enough to handle bigger power forwards like Duncan and Z-Bo. He thrives in up-and-down, ABA-type games, but as soon as those games slow down (especially late), so does his effectiveness. And he's a never-ending injury risk because he plays so recklessly.
On the flip side — that's what we love about the guy. I have probably watched him in person 55 times at this point; he's the most fearless basketball player I've ever seen. You watch Blake Griffin the same way parents watch their 9-month-old child crawling around a house that hasn't been childproofed; you never feel safe, not for a second. Nobody wants anything to happen to Blake. That feeling lingers over the air in every Clippers game, especially because it's the Clippers, the most jinxed franchise in sports (see my 2009 "Curse of the Sacred Buffalo"). Stripping aside all the fanboy stuff, you're getting an 18-8 every night from someone who plays one end of the floor and treats every game like he's an X Games contestant. That's not a superstar. That's a star. Big difference.
And look, we're edging into the top 10 here. We're putting up the Superstar Rope in front of the Trade Value nightclub right now. Blake Griffin isn't good enough yet. You could rank him higher because he's the most popular Clipper ever, someone who earns his max contract from a popularity/interest/star power standpoint. And you could rank him lower because he's just not that valuable yet, and because his icy relationship with Chris Paul — if
any coach who's even remotely competent the next coach can't heal it — is straying into "Him or Me" territory. We're getting there (as covered in Part 2 of last Friday's column). So we're splitting the difference and sticking him here.
10. Dwyane Wade
He's the fourth-best 2-guard ever behind MJ, Kobe and The Logo. Nice company. Barring an untimely injury or a massive upset, he's seven weeks away from his third ring. If Miami gets through these last three rounds with minimal damage — say, five losses or fewer — Wade will clinch "second-best player on one of the best teams ever" status. (Of course, if he doesn't start playing better soon, they're not winning anything. He might be more banged up than they're letting on.) He was also the 2006 Finals MVP, one of 28 players who won the award since 1969. He has made nine straight All-Star Games and seven All-NBA teams (two firsts, three seconds, two thirds — not counting this season), and he's won an All-Star MVP (in 2010) and a gold medal (in 2008).
Wait, we're not done. He's part of the NBA's "What if?" draft lore (Darko over Melo and Wade), an officiating nadir (the 2006 Finals), WTF history ("The Decision") and meaningful history (Miami's incredible 27-game winning streak). He's the five-time MVP of the "Most Misspelled NBA Name" All-Star team, as well as a five-time member of the John Stockton "I'm Much More Ruthless and Sneaky-Dirty Than People Realize" All-Stars. His 2008-09 season (30.2 PPG, 7.5 APG, 5.0 APG, 49% FG, 30.4 PER) ranks up there with the best statistical seasons by any guard ever. And John Hollinger ranked his 2006 Finals performance (34.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 47% FG, 33.8 PER) as THE greatest since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.
Translation: That was a pretty incredible first NBA decade for Dwyane Wade and we didn't even mention his Machiavellian ploy of convincing his biggest rival to join forces with him.
OK, so what's happening in Decade 2? Why does Wade keep getting banged up? Should we worry that his body is breaking down? Can Wade subtly redefine his offensive game the way Kobe and MJ did? Shouldn't we worry that his per-game free throw attempts dropped over the past five seasons from 9.8 to 6.2? Or what about his perennially lousy 3-point shooting (career: 28.9 percent) atrophying to the point that he's only attempting one a game these days? Doesn't he need to keep adding pieces to his game? If there's a positive sign, it's this.
Player A: 25.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 4.6 APG, 45.6% FG, 33% 3FG, 19.9 FGA, 6.9 FTA, 21.9 PER.
Player B: 22.0 PPG, 5.3 APG, 5.2 RPG, 52.1% FG, 26% 3FG, 16.5 FGA, 6.4 FTA, 24.0 PER.
Player A? 31-year-old Kobe Bryant's per-36 minute numbers during the 2009-10 season.
Player B? Dwyane Wade's per-36 minute numbers this season.
Here's what those numbers mean
Thanks to LeBron, Wade can perform a stripped-down version of Kobe From 2009 Through 2013, only without being a no. 1 scoring option, logging as many minutes OR carrying the night-to-night burden of being a contender's be-all-and-end-all perimeter creator. He can throw on his Robin superhero costume and pick his spots. Assuming LeBron re-signs with Miami, Wade could easily submit four or five more seasons exactly like the one he just had; if he adds a reliable 3-point shot, even better. That statistical "dip" was really a great player picking his spots, and just as importantly, being allowed the luxury to pick his spots. We'll remember Dwyane Wade as one of the best 20 players ever. It's in motion.
9. Derrick Rose
I covered Rose's non-comeback in last Friday's column on the first round of the playoffs, specifically the Shadow of Gilbert Arenas (the crucial point here). There's a 90 percent chance that Rose is deep inside his own head but for Trade Value purposes, I'm concerned about the other 10 percent, which covers the length of Rose's recovery time (longer than usual), the problems that popped up along the way (muscle atrophy and hammy issues), and his health going forward (who knows?). Rose's game hinges on attacking the paint, attacking the rim, attacking defenders, attacking everything. If you could describe him in two words, you'd use these: "relentless fury."
Well, what if that fury has been compromised a little? What if post-ACL Rose decides, I'm gonna pick my spots, shoot more 3s, maybe pass up a few of those fearless drives in traffic? Remember, Rose's breathtaking athleticism was his single best asset. So what now? It took 12 months for Ricky Rubio to look like Ricky Rubio again. It took 12 months for Iman Shumpert to look like Iman Shumpert again. We're at 13 months and counting with Rose. I don't totally know what we're getting from Derrick Rose when he comes back. And neither do you. We're sticking him here to be safe.
(One silver lining for Chicago fans, courtesy of Stephen in Chicago: "One of the strangest side effects of PEDs: as a Bulls fan, I'm actually comforted by Rose's delayed return because it means he's not using them." So I guess there's that!)
GROUP B: "Lemme Save You Some Time: N-O."
8. Chris Paul
Three reasons he's not higher
A. He's about to get paid $80 million to 100 million for five years by somebody, whether it's the Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets or Lakers.
B. He's missing the lateral meniscus in his right knee, which is a fancy way of saying, "His right knee no longer has the cushion that knees usually need to do all the things that knees do." Read this 2011 ClipsNation piece for all the dirty details; it includes fancy diagrams and everything. In year four of his next contract, he'll be 32 years old, with 12 NBA seasons on his odometer and odds are, he'll be battling problems with that knee and playing in some degree of pain. Has to be mentioned.
C. Look, I'm one of the preachers at the Church of Chris Paul. He's the best point guard I've ever watched on a regular basis. I can't blame him for being saddled with an overmatched coach and two years of pieces that never totally fit. He did everything he could. But his personality isn't always um favorable? He's demanding and occasionally condescending. He has no problem undressing a teammate verbally in front of 18,000 people. He's always gesturing and telling teammates where to go and what to do, almost like an abrasive wedding planner. He's always playing angry. There were times during these past two postseasons, especially when things went wrong, that CP's body language basically said, "These guys suck — I'm gonna have to do this myself."
There's a subtle balance between "I have to trust my teammates and build up their confidence" and "We're gonna lose unless I take over" — something that Isiah Thomas mastered completely during Detroit's five-year run from 1987 to 1991 — that Chris Paul never totally found in New Orleans or Los Angeles. He might be this generation's Oscar Robertson — someone so demanding/intimidating/relentless that teammates practically cower around him. Well, Oscar never made the Finals until much later in his career, when he crossed paths with Kareem in Milwaukee. Should we read anything into the fact that, in eight years, Chris Paul has never played in a conference finals? Or that he's 16-24 in the playoffs? It's a fair question, right? For the life of me, I can't understand why Paul and Blake Griffin don't get along, or why two straight Clipper postseasons COMPLETELY self-combusted. Even factoring in the Vinny Del Negro Effect, it's still a little strange — you shouldn't keep self-combusting when you have one of the league's best players.
And again, we're in the top 10 and picking nits. Chris Paul is fantastic. I voted for him fourth for MVP this season. In Dallas, with Rick Carlisle and Dirk and Cuban and a bunch of carefully selected role players flanking him? I'm sure he'd be even more fantastic. But in Los Angeles, with another inevitably shaky coach, the Lob City mind-set and a totally dysfunctional organization? I'm not quite as sure. Throw in the missing meniscus and the Clippers' tortured history and he's eighth. You know, unless he jumps to the Lakers (see footnote).13
7. Kyrie Irving
My buddy House tried to throw his body in front of Kyrie cracking the top eight, asking, "Can I see him stay on the floor for one season? Can he give me ONE season? Just one? Am I asking for too much?"14
Let's see Irving missed 26 of 37 games at Duke, then 15 of 66 games as a Cavs rookie and 23 of 82 games this season. In three years, he's played 121 games and missed 64. So far he's torn ligaments in his big toe; sprained one shoulder; broken his hand; suffered a concussion; broken a finger on his non-shooting hand; broken a bone in his jaw; hyperextended a knee; and sprained the other shoulder.
Was that a series of fluke injuries or a more ominous pattern that spells out the words, "KYRIE CAN'T STAY ON THE COURT"? Durability is really 25 percent luck and 75 percent DNA. You can't do anything about Patrick Beverley slamming into your knee as you're calling a timeout; that's in the 25 percent. Mike D'Antoni playing you too many minutes until your 35-year-old body breaks down; that's in the 25 percent. But grinding out 36 to 38 minutes a game for six to eight months per year, fighting off nagging injuries and bringing it year after year after year? That's in your DNA. That's the 75 percent.
My favorite example for this topic: John Stockton and Kevin Johnson. Before he saved the Kings and turned himself into Seattle's Archenemy, KJ was an absolutely devastating offensive player; nobody could stay in front of him. He's one of the few guards I can ever remember who made good defenders start backing up just by making it seem like he might make a move. Stockton didn't have that first step or KJ's power around the rim, but he mastered everything that went into playing point guard — specifically, setting up teammates, running fast breaks, picking his spots and doing everything in the most efficient way possible.
Of course, that wasn't his greatest talent. Stockton played 19 seasons in all. In 17 of those seasons, he played every possible game. He missed four games in the 1989-90 season, and he missed 18 in the 1997-98 season. That's it. He also played 182 of a possible 182 playoff games. So if you're scoring at home, John Stockton played 1,686 of a possible 1,708 professional basketball games. Think about that. It's freaking astounding. He played in nearly 99 percent of the games he could have played.
On the flip side: Kevin Johnson's body broke down as his career went along. The first five years were fine — he played 80 (52 games with the Cavs before being traded to Phoenix), 81, 74, 77 and 78 games for the Suns, also playing all 40 of their playoff games and even making three straight second-team All-NBA's. Then the wheels came off: 49, 67, 47, 56, 70, 50, 0, 6. Ask anyone who played fantasy basketball in the '90s — when someone took Kevin Johnson, everyone else snickered. He couldn't stay on the court. His hammies were made out of papier-mâché.
So we'll see about Irving, an electric offensive player who is already one of the league's best clutch scorers.15 He's only two years into a favorable rookie contract. And he's also just 21 years old, a baby for God's sake. There's a lot to love. Ironically, I think he's Kevin Johnson 2.0 as a basketball player — just as devastating off the dribble, just as unstoppable getting to the rim. Let's hope that comparison doesn't stretch to his durability, too.
6. Carmelo Anthony
As the longtime president of the "I Still Think Carmelo Can Work in New York," "I Still Believe In Ben Affleck" and "I Still Think Kerry Washington Will Make It" Fan Clubs, it's been a big last 12 months for me. Since the ABA-NBA merger, we've seen five NBA teams legitimately contend for a title while being built around the offense of a scoring forward who averaged at least 27 points a game in the playoffs: Dirk Nowitzki in 2011 (won the title!), Dominique Wilkins in 1988, Bernard King in 1984, and Julius Erving in 1977 (made the Finals). Let's look at their playoff numbers
'11 Dirk (21 games): 27.7 PPG, 2.5 APG, 49-46-94%, 18.9 FGA, 8.9 FTA, 25.2 PER, 32.0 usage
'77 Doc (19 games): 27.3 PPG, 4.5 APG, 52-00-82%, 20.5 FGA, 7.1 FTA, 22.9 PER, 29.0 usage16
'88 Nique (12 games): 31.2 PPG, 2.8 APG, 46-22-77%, 25.0 FGA, 10.4 FTA, 22.9 PER, 35.8 usage
'84 King (12 games): 34.8 PPG, 3.0 APG, 57-00-76%, 23.5 FGA, 10.3 FTA, 27.6 PER, 31.9 usage17
'13 Melo (8 games): 29.3 PPG, 1.9 APG, 39-28-92%, 26.8 FGA, 7.4 FTA, 21.3 PER, 39.0 usage
Of those five, Carmelo is the least efficient playoff forward BY FAR and yet, per game, he's taken the most shots, involved himself in the most possessions and generated the lowest number of assists. He's been a black hole.18 There's just no way around it. Since the merger, only three players averaged more than 26 shots per playoff game and made the Finals: Allen Iverson in 2001 (30.0 FGA, 39% FG); Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995 (26.2 FGA, 53% FG); and Michael Jordan in 1992 (26.4 FGA, 50% FG), 1993 (27.8 FGA, 48% FG) and 1997 (26.2 FGA, 46% FG). Carmelo isn't MJ, and he certainly isn't Hakeem.
Throwing in his ample salary (2014-2015: $45 million), the following question seems fair: Why did you stick him at no. 6?
Because I know what I'm getting with Carmelo. The dude loves playing in New York. He can handle any pressure/spotlight/scrutiny you throw at him there. He loves taking and making big shots. He's one of a handful of current players — maybe Durant, Harden, Curry, Paul, Kobe and that's it — who would step on a court with LeBron right now and think, Fuck that guy, I'm as good as him. And if he's playing well, you can absolutely win the title with him. He's just not playing well lately. You might see Carmelo swing three spots higher or five spots lower depending on what happens these next three weeks. I'm still a believer. Just know that the Knicks aren't winning a title with Carmelo shooting 27 times a game. That needs to be fixed starting tonight.
5. James Harden
4. Russell Westbrook
Hold on, we have to let the Oklahoma City fans finish dry-heaving.
(Just a few more seconds.)
And we're good.
You already know how I feel about Westbrook, and Harden's breakout season in Houston was mildly jaw-dropping. The Beard (only 23, by the way) averaged a 26-6-5, with 44-37-85 shooting splits, for a team that didn't have a second All-Star. He's also wholly unique: a southpaw who's either jacking up 3s (6.2 per game) or getting to the line (10.2 per game, first in the NBA). He attempted 486 3s (the 59th-highest number ever by an NBA player) and made 179 3s (74th-highest ever). He also attempted 792 free throws (74th-highest ever) and made 674 (27th-highest ever). Pay special attention to the list of names who make up the top 30 for made free throws in one NBA season.
West, Wilt, MJ, Dantley, Oscar, Durant, Barry, Moses, Barkley, Mailman, Kobe, Pettit, Robinson, Schayes, Tiny, Elgin, Iverson, Harden.
In other words GOOD GOD!!!! Every guy either made the Hall of Fame or is headed there. Throwing in the low number of true franchise players in 2013,19 the lack of crunch-time scorers and the overall dearth of 2-guards — really, it's Harden, then Wade, then Klay Thompson, then Kobe if he ever comes back, then we're suddenly looking at the likes of DeMar DeRozan and J.R. Smith — it's hard to believe Harden was ever on the market.
Think about where the Rockets were in October, when they were headed for 30 wins and looking at another season of "Don't worry, everyone, we have cap space and picks and assets, this is gonna work out, we swear!" Somehow they landed the league's best under-30 shooting guard, someone who is guaranteed to make the next seven or eight All-Star teams unless he gets injured, for one year of Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, the 12th pick in a lousy 2013 draft and a future Dallas pick. Let's be honest — that's a miracle. That was a franchise-saving trade. They didn't just give up three quarters and a dime for a dollar; they inadvertently got a $2 bill back.
And look, I've hammered Oklahoma City enough for one of my least favorite NBA trades ever — you can read my thoughts here and here and here. But I don't think the following point can be emphasized strongly enough.
You can't just assume in basketball that the window will always stay open for you.
In football, you can build around a franchise quarterback, draft smartly, protect your cap, repeatedly trade down for more assets and do everything else that Bill Belichick did since 2001. That mind-set doesn't work in basketball. You can find/afford three blue-chippers only if you're lucky. You can't "trade down" and assume you'll replace a blue-chipper with multiple pieces; it never really worked. You also can't assume that you're getting 10 more cracks at the Finals, or that your best players will stay healthy year after year after year. The '86 Rockets thought they had a perennial contender. So did the '88 Mavericks, the '91 Blazers, the '92 Cavaliers, the '93 Suns, the '94 Warriors, the '97 Bullets, the '03 Kings, the '05 Suns but the truth is, you never know.
The Thunder easily could have kept together three of the top six guys on this list for one more year, then decided on their future this summer. They didn't. And they didn't because they didn't know James Harden was THIS good. That's why they kept Serge Ibaka over him, and that's why they didn't just say, "A year from now, we'll amnesty (the Soon-To-Be-Totally, Completely & Irrevocably Washed-Up) Perkins and keep Harden." It's one of the single biggest tactical mistakes any NBA contender has ever made — the modern equivalent of the Lakers freaking out after the '84 Finals, then dealing James Worthy to Detroit for one year of Kelly Tripucka, Tony Campbell and two future no. 1 picks.20
In The Book of Basketball, I wrote an entire chapter about the 33 biggest "What Ifs?" in NBA history. What if Portland had taken Jordan? What if Kareem had gone to the ABA? What if Lenny Bias hadn't overdosed? What if the '77 Blazers had kept Moses Malone? Well, "What if Oklahoma City had kept Durant, Westbrook and Harden together?" has already leapfrogged into that NBA What If? stratosphere. What a bummer. I wish we could press a RESET button and do this one over.
3. Stephen Curry
I already shot my wad on Curry in last Friday's column (the extended March Madness analogy), so let's defend what seems like an overreaction of a ranking. I love Curry, you love Curry, everyone loves Curry but third? Really? Third out of anyone???? When he was no. 16 just five weeks ago? The top seven reasons why Curry snared the no. 3 spot, in no particular order:
Reason No. 1: Along with Kevin Durant, he's 2013's co-winner of the Derrick Rose Award for "Guy Whose City Would Riot If He Were Traded." Right now, the Golden Gate Bridge has a better chance of being traded than Steph Curry.
Reason No. 2: Here's what it looks like when a 25-year-old guy is making The Leap.
Post All-Star (30 games): 26.0 PPG, 7.4 APG, 48% FG, 89% FT, 46% 3FG, 8.9 3FGA.
2013 Playoffs (8 games): 26.5 PPG, 8.9 APG, 46% FG, 91% FT, 43% 3FG, 9.0 3FGA
And it goes beyond stats — the Warriors are winning with a team that is built around Curry's offense and personality. You're always looking for teams with identities in May, and here's Golden State's identity: Opponents can't leave Curry or Thompson open for a 3-pointer for 48 solid minutes. They aren't just stretching the floor, they're bending it into something else. When you're that panicked about staying close to two shooters, it affects every decision you make. That can't happen without Curry, who has assumed an even bigger offensive role with David Lee missing only as Zach Lowe meticulously spelled out on Grantland today, Golden State's small-ball attack has taken off partly because he's handling the ball so much more. He's a franchise player now.21
Reason No. 3: It's only Year 4 for Curry. Reggie Miller peaked from Year 7 through Year 10. Ray Allen peaked in Year 5 and Year 6. Peja Stojakovic peaked in Year 6.22 Larry Bird peaked from Year 6 through Year 8. Dirk Nowitzki peaked from Year 7 through Year 9. Steve Nash peaked from Year 9 through Year 11. Glen Rice and Mitch Richmond peaked in Year 7. This is a roundabout way of telling you that Curry will probably create the 50-50-90 Club someday. It's in play.23 Along those same lines
Reason No. 4: Mark Jackson is technically right — Golden State has the best shooting backcourt ever, although it's really the best long-range shooting backcourt ever. Check out the only 13 players (their best seasons only) who made at least 2.5 3s a game while (a) shooting at least 40 percent or higher, and (b) averaging at least 16.5 points per game (sorry, Damon Jones, Raja Bell and Kyle Korver).
Curry, 2013: 7.7 3FGA, 3.5 made, 45.3%
Allen, 2006: 8.4 3FGA, 3.4 made, 41.2%
Dennis Scott, 1996: 7.7 3FGA, 3.3 made, 42.5%
Peja, 2004: 6.8 3FGA, 3.0 made, 43.3%
Jason Richardson, 2008: 7.3 FGA, 3.0 made, 40.6%
Mike Miller, 2007: 7.1 3FGA, 2.9 made, 40.6%
Richmond, 1996: 6.8 3FGA, 2.8 made, 43.7%
Miller, 1997: 6.6 3FGA, 2.8 made, 42.7%
Rashard Lewis, 2008: 6.8 3FGA, 2.8 made, 40.9%
Danny Granger, 2009: 6.7 3FGA, 2.7 made, 40.4%
Thompson, 2013: 6.4 3FGA, 2.6 made, 40.1%
Paul Pierce, 2002: 6.3 3FGA, 2.6 made, 40.4%
Rice, 1997: 5.6 3FGA, 2.6 made, 47.0%
And the Warriors had TWO of those guys? And they still have room to improve? Yikes.
Reason No. 5: "Turn on the game, Steph Curry is heating up" is the single most exciting sports-related text you can send or receive right now. If I'm at dinner and you send me that text, I'm splitting toward the bar like a doctor who just had his "EMERGENCY!" beeper go off.
Reason No. 6: You can't come up with a better NBA match of "performer and crowd" than Curry and Oakland right now. They were meant for each other. It was destiny.
Reason No. 7:
Everyone else in our top 15 is getting paid the max next season, or damned close, except for Kyrie Irving (still on a rookie deal). Starting next year, Curry will make $44 million over the next four seasons.24 Translation: You're getting a franchise player for 45 percent off! It's like one of those Black Friday sales that Amazon has. That's the biggest reason Steph climbed to no. 3. Value plus performance plus results. He's like a fancy German car. I'm thoroughly enjoying the Steph Curry era.
GROUP A: "Completely and Utterly Untouchable"
2. Kevin Durant
Producer A: "So how are we gonna spruce up this Kevin Durant movie? It's so boring right now. I mean, I get it — he's a role model, he's incredibly efficient, there's nobody like him, yada yada yada. I'm bored just talking about it. What's the hook?"
Producer B: "I have a few ideas."
Producer A: "Let's hear 'em."
Producer B: "We keep everything up through when they lose in the 2012 Finals. Right before the next season, his team trades James Harden because they're afraid to pay him."
Producer A: "What do they get for him?"
Producer B: "I was thinking something pretty bad — like, Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two future picks."
Producer A: "What????? That's ridiculous! That trade would never happen in real life!"
Producer B: "Just stay with me. So now it's just Durant and Westbrook — now they're playing pissed off because everyone thinks the Harden trade ruined their title chances. Durant's even getting technicals and stuff."
Producer A: "I like it. Yelling at the refs! That's good!"
Producer B: "He ends up having a fantastic season — 28 and 8, 50-40-90 club, 60 wins — "
Producer A: "So he wins the MVP."
Producer B: "No! Actually, LeBron wins it again because Miami has a 27-game winning streak and it turns into this national LeBron lovefest."
Producer A: "Nice! So Durant can't win even as he's winning."
Producer B: "Exactly. We get to the playoffs and Westbrook hurts his knee in the second game."
Producer A: "I like it — you should have some goon on another team injure him so Durant gets even more pissed off."
Producer B: "You're right, I'll add that in. [Jotting notes.] Anyway, now it's just Durant — no Harden, no Westbrook, just him. This unselfish, ridiculously efficient guy has to start playing crazy minutes and doing EVERYTHING offensively for Oklahoma City to keep winning. In his first eight playoff games, he plays 42.8 minutes a game, averages 33.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.4 assists while shooting 49 percent —
Producer A: "What??????"
Producer B: "I know, I know. He's doing everything. In the last 50 years, only LeBron averaged a 33-9-6 in the playoffs — in 2009, when he put up 35, 9 and 7 over 14 playoff games."
Producer A: "Wait, Jordan never did it?"
Producer B: "Nope. Jordan's best was 37, 7 and 7 in 1990. He never had the rebounds."
Producer A: "Amazing! So how does it play out?"
Producer B: "That's where I'm stuck. We could just have Durant put Oklahoma City on his back, win the next two rounds, then beat Miami in the Finals by himself. But that seems too easy. Aren't we better off having Durant lose in Round 2 to Memphis despite his heroic performance, then spend the summer regrouping — like, we could have a couple sad scenes of him walking aimlessly around downtown Oklahoma City right after LeBron wins another title, and then his personal trainer finds him and gives him one of those goose bump–inducing pep talks?
Producer A: "Who plays the trainer?"
Producer B: "I was thinking Matthew Modine."
Producer A: "Nice! ALWAYS LIKED HIM!"
Producer B: "Then, a re-committed Durant could win the MVP and the title the next year. And that's our ending."
Producer A [thinking]: "I need a little more drama. What if Durant develops a major gambling problem, then Adam Silver suspends him and Durant has to play minor league baseball for 18 months while pretending he wasn't suspended? And THEN he comes back and wins the title?
Producer B: You're a genius.
1. LeBron James
Let's break into a mini-LeBronbag
Q: Last year you memorably wrote that the NBA MVP trophy should vary in size based on the level of performance by that year's MVP. So wouldn't this season qualify LeBron for a 40-pounder? Especially considering what he has done for his fourth trophy compared to what he did for the first 3. After this season we are firmly in the LeBron James era.
—Steven Feister, Los Angeles
SG: I thought it was a 40-pounder. He's the league's best offensive player and one of its best defensive players, someone who can guard everyone from Nate Robinson to Zach Randolph. He's the alpha dog on one of the best regular-season teams ever, for an offense that was carefully constructed to take advantage of HIS talents. He single-handedly kept that historic 27-game winning streak going four or five times. He never took a night off. He had the best and most efficient all-around year of his career. He's astoundingly durable. He's the best player in 20 years. There's nobody like him. He's only the second guy to win four MVP awards in five years, along with Bill Russell. He should have won unanimously. He's headed for his second ring. I don't know what's left. If LeBron's career was a movie, we'd be living this scene
and I think the 2013 Finals would probably be the tiger.
Q: I propose renaming the Coach of the Year award for Mike D'Antoni. Why can't we call it the "Not Mike D'Antoni" award? What better way to honor someone who somehow made a team with four future Hall of Famers unwatchable all year. Here's how it works: This year's Not Mike D'Antoni Award goes to Erik Spoelstra. He brilliantly built a unique offense around his best player and took his team to near historic levels. In other words, he's not Mike D'Antoni.
SG: (Standing and applauding.)
Q: Let's say LeBron switched spots with the best player on every other playoff team and we could play out the playoffs 16 different times. How many titles would LeBron win out of a possible 16 (including him just staying with Miami)?
—Tommy, El Paso, TX
SG: Assuming we still have the same injuries (including Westbrook's knee) every time in this ridiculous hypothetical scenario, I'm giving LeBron the 2013 title in Miami, New York, Indiana, San Antonio, Memphis, Denver, Golden State, Chicago and the Clippers. Oh, and you could have talked me into Milwaukee after enough drinks.
Q: Neo coming back to life in The Matrix and becoming The One is exactly what happened to LeBron game six in Boston last year. I guess we're in Matrix Reloaded now where LeBron can win as many games as he wants in a row like Neo defeating a million Agent Smiths. I guess next year LeBron will be reunited with the Source or something.
—Marc Feffer, New York
SG: I've never seen The Matrix but sure! Sounds good.
Q: LeBron now looks like the only Queen on an NBA chessboard (and I mean that as a true compliment). He now understands it all. Angles, spacing, etc.
He is blessed with such physical skills that he can impose his will, at will, regardless of the other nine paid professionals on the court. When he decides to take over a game it is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. He bends the entire game, all action on the court, towards him, at both ends. I have never seen anything like it.
—Matt Robinson, Edmonton, Alberta
SG: It's the perfect analogy. Matt Robinson couldn't be more correct LeBron is the queen on the chessboard. You could only say that about two NBA players: him and Magic. Nice company. He's one of the 10 best players of all time and climbing.
Q: Loved the trade value trilogy. I'm really glad you stretched it out to three parts. Oh wait, you haven't written it yet and probably never will; you suck.
—Will S., Chicago
SG: Yup, this was your Trade Value trilogy.