2013-14 NBA Season: Ranking the Top 25 Players
2013-14 NBA Season: Ranking the Top 25 Players
The 2013-2014 NBA season begins in 12 days. You have my permission to get excited.
As fans of the NBA, we are coming off of a 2012-2013 season that was one of the most entertaining years in recent memory. We saw Kevin Durant become a member of the 50/40/90 club, the emergence of a number of young players into the realm of stars in this league, LeBron James do LeBron James things, a great postseason overall, and a riveting and thrilling series in the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs.
One of the results of the terrific basketball that we were treated to last year is that there are now exceedingly high expectations for the upcoming season. It’s a classic case of basketball fans getting spoiled with what they got accustomed to watching in a previous season and expecting that level of performance to be repeated.
However, the crazy thing is that the great things that we saw last year could very well happen again. This season we get the return of Derrick Rose and Kevin Love, as well as many fringe teams from last season improving and putting themselves into the mix for the postseason. It’s going to be fun all over the place.
Though it’s entertaining to watch these teams play, though, it’s much easier to enjoy the spectacular performances of individual players. I love watching the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets put up 130 points apiece, but that doesn’t compare to watching Stephen Curry drop 54 points in Madison Square Garden. Individual performances are one of the things that make the game of basketball and the NBA so special.
Given how individual-driven the league is, it’s always interesting to look at who the best of the best in the league is before a season begins. Not only does it give an idea of who to keep an eye on, but also gives you an idea of expectations that players will face and a measuring stick to hold those players to for the rest of the season. With that said, here are the top 25 players heading into the 2013-2014 NBA season.
25. Andre Iguodala – Golden State Warriors G/F
Based solely on how he performed last season with the Denver Nuggets, Andre Iguodala probably wouldn’t make this list. With Iggy joining the Warriors this season and given his skill-set, I expect him to show why many people think so highly of him around the league—players, coaches and executives alike.
In Denver last season, Iguodala averaged 13 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.7 steals in 34.7 minutes per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor. As he comes into another fast-paced offense surrounded by more shooters and where he’ll be able to showcase his perimeter defense, he’s going to be a catalyst for what I expect to be one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
24. Roy Hibbert – Indiana Pacers C
The Indiana Pacers figure to be one of the biggest challengers to the Heat in the Eastern Conference this season after adding solid depth to their roster, but they wouldn’t be in the conversation without Roy Hibbert providing a big, physical presence in the post. Last season, the 26-year-old center averaged 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 28.7 minutes per game while shooting 44.8 percent from the floor.
With more weapons surrounding him and with the Pacers’ young players hopefully making another leap forward in their development, Hibbert could be due for a huge season. He has much more offensive ability than he showed with his inefficient scoring last season and his defense is top-notch to say the least. You can’t teach size, but not many guys in the league have the size, awareness and skill all in one package like Hibbert does.
23. Rajon Rondo – Boston Celtics PG
Rajon Rondo is one of the hardest players to rank heading into this season for the new-look Boston Celtics. When healthy and when surrounded by future Hall-of-Famers, Rondo is much higher on this list. However, he’ll be playing this season coming off of torn ACL, which will also cause him to miss some time, and will be without Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
This season presents a pretty great challenge for Rondo in Boston, assuming he’s not traded which can’t be ruled out. He’ll be playing with a substantially worse supporting cast around him, meaning that the Celts will be relying on him more heavily to score, facilitate and defend this season than they ever have before. He has the skills to do so, but his knee injury and supporting cast definitely cause him to drop a little in these rankings.
22. Blake Griffin – Los Angeles Clippers PF
Blake Griffin entering is fourth season with the Los Angeles Clippers still has a lot to prove. He’s only 24 years old and much of the criticism he receives is unwarranted because he’s still developing, but that doesn’t mean that he should automatically be a top-15 player in the league.
Last season, Griffin put up solid numbers, averaging 18 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals in 32.5 minutes per game while shooting 53.8 percent from the field. However, he still needs work on his offensive game and in terms of using his physical tools to be a better defender. He’s another player that could wind up higher on this list, but he still has to prove some things before that can happen.
21. Al Horford – Atlanta Hawks C
Atlanta Hawks big man Al Horford deserves a lot more love than he gets from NBA fans. Last season in the ATL, Horford was the team’s best option offensively and on the boards, as well as being a top-two defender on the team. With the departure of Josh Smith, he’s now going to be the unquestioned leader of this Hawks team.
The question that does arise, though, is how he will perform being relied upon more than he ever has in his career. He’ll be joined by a solid cast of players like Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap, but Horford will be the guy that needs to get the big buckets or big defensive stops in Atlanta. If he can translate his play as option 1B last season, he’s yet another player that can rise in these rankings.
20. Chris Bosh – Miami Heat F/C
On the surface, Chris Bosh simply looks like the third best player on the back-to-back champions of the league. However, Bosh means much more to the Heat than that. Even his stat-line from last year boasting averages of 16.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.4 blocks in 33.2 minutes per game while shooting 53.5 percent from the field don’t do him justice.
For one, Bosh is a versatile offensive player that opens up a lot of what the Heat like to do on offense. Specifically in small-ball lineups, Bosh helps space the floor and also gets out running with the team in transition. Defensively, he’s also an enormous presence for Miami. He may get bullied a bit by the Hibberts of the world, but he’s also not a natural center and shouldn’t necessarily be defending guys at the position. He has great footwork, instincts and quickness on that end of the floor, though. Putting it all together, Bosh deserves to be on this list and a case could even be made for him to be even higher.
19. Deron Williams – Brooklyn Nets G
From a talent perspective alone, Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams might be one of the 15 best players in the league. However, there is obviously more to it than just talent. Williams was disappointing last season in Brooklyn and, even with a new supporting cast and new head coach, he still needs to be better before he moves up in these rankings.
Joined by Garnett, Pierce, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson, Williams has the chance to be a 20-10 guy with relative ease this season. The question that remains is whether he will be engaged by the new life in Brooklyn’s roster or if he will continue to exude an air of something near apathy. If it’s the former, Williams could do something special this season.
18. Paul George – Indiana Pacers F
Paul George wouldn’t have even sniffed this list coming into last season, but after his third year in the league that had many people talking about his potential as a superstar in this league, he undoubtedly belongs here. The hard part is trying to gauge where he lands among the NBA’s 25 best players.
Ultimately, middle of the pack seems about right. Though he has impressive athleticism and has emerged as an elite and versatile defender, he still has development left to come. He needs continued work on his ball-handling and could stand to become a more reliable and efficient scorer. When it comes down to it, though, you can’t deny a 23-year-old that accomplished what he did last season and with his potential a spot in these rankings.
17. Dirk Nowitzki – Dallas Mavericks F
If someone is going to deny Dirk Nowitzki his deserved place in these rankings, it certainly isn’t going to be me. Obviously the 35-year-old forward for the Dallas Mavericks has injury concerns these days and doesn’t move as well as he once did, but that doesn’t even come close to meaning that he can’t have an impact on the league still.
Playing in 53 games last season because of injuries, Nowitzki still put up 17.3 points per game in limited minutes (by his standards) while still managing to convert on 47.1 percent of his shot attempts and 41.4 percent of his three-point attempts. The mobility and spring that Dirk once had may be fleeing him, but he’s still a potent offensive force and that alone makes him one of the 25 best in the NBA.
16. Kyrie Irving – Cleveland Cavaliers G
Prefacing this by saying that I’m all-in on the career of Kyrie Irving, I almost considered vaulting him into the top-10 players in the league. After allowing some better judgment to kick in, 16th felt fair for the Cleveland Cavaliers third-year point guard.
In just his second season last year, Irving played 59 games and put up 22.5 points, 5.9 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 34.7 minutes per game while shooting 45.2 percent from the floor and 39.1 percent from three. He’s clearly one of the most dangerous offensive forces in the game already in his young career. However, before he’s elevated into the league’s top-10, he has to show a better defensive presence on the perimeter than he has thus far and needs to show he can facilitate more soundly with an improved team around him. I believe he can do all of those things, but he still has to go out and do it.
15. Tim Duncan – San Antonio Spurs F
At some point in the next couple of years, the San Antonio Spurs are going to experience the drastic decline of one of the best big men to ever play the game, Tim Duncan. However, no one really knows when that’s going to happen and, if last year was any indication, the 37-year-old is still among the game’s best.
With his minutes being limited by Gregg Popovich, Duncan still averaged 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.7 blocks in 30.1 minutes per game while converting on 50.2 percent of his shot attempts. Duncan, even at his age, can remarkably still bring it on both ends of the floor. He has never been and still won’t be one of the most electrifying players in the league, but he gets the job done at a high level like he’s done for so long now.
14. Stephen Curry – Golden State Warriors G
Anytime you have a point guard that takes 7.7 three-point attempts per game and converts on 45.3 percent of them, you’ve got something special. That’s exactly what the Warriors have in Stephen Curry. The 25-year-old Curry finally stayed healthy last season and showed off his immense prowess as an offensive player. I’m not sure there are five players in the league more lethal with the ball in their hands than Curry.
Aided by a young team with another year to develop and the addition of Iguodala, Curry should have the opportunity to facilitate more this season, thus furthering his value. He’s still a sub-par defender and needs to work on finishing at the basket, but his prowess offensively and his leadership on Golden State make him one of the NBA’s most exciting and valuable players.
13. Marc Gasol – Memphis Grizzlies C
When you think Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, the things that come to mind are how the supporters of advanced stats are in love with him and you think about his ability as an interior defender that won him the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award last season. That’s not all Gasol brings to the table, though.
Gasol’s defense is obviously his biggest strength, but he’s also a versatile offensive player that can score at the rim and from the mid-range quite well. The Spaniard is also one of the best interior passers in the game of basketball and always seems to make positive things happen when the ball is in his hands. The Grizzlies aren’t as successful as they have been without Gasol—simple as that.
12. Kobe Bryant – Los Angeles Lakers
The cause of much debate, specifically because of ESPN ranking him as the 25th best player in the league, Kobe Bryant showed he hadn’t lost a step at all last season before tearing his Achilles’ tendon. In 78 games he averaged 27.3 points, six assists and 5.6 rebounds in 38.6 minutes per game while shooting 46.3 percent from the floor. Not bad for a guy in his mid-30s.
With a depleted Los Angeles Lakers team and a healthy Kobe, he’s probably in the top-seven at the worst in these rankings. That’s the thing, though: he’s not healthy. We have no idea when Bryant will be back on the floor for the Lakers and how his 35-year-old body will react to coming back from a serious lower-body injury. Ranking him 25th seems a bit overdramatic, but his injury definitely drops him in the list and there’s no argument, not even regarding his maniacal work-ethic, that changes that.
11. Derrick Rose – Chicago Bulls G
Had I done these rankings prior to the preseason, Derrick Rose may not have been as high as he is. Before the preseason, no one knew what to expect from the return of Rose to the Chicago Bulls. After a bit of run in NBA action, though, Rose has showed that he’s fully recovered and looks like the explosive and productive player that he was before tearing his ACL in April 2012.
There’s still some apprehension regarding Rose. You never want to put too much stock into what you see in the preseason, even if it is regarding someone’s health. He has the talent and athleticism still in his arsenal, but putting it together in the regular season is another matter entirely. I believe he’ll succeed, but I also feel it’s necessary to hedge my bet slightly and place him out of the top-10 in the league.
10. Dwyane Wade – Miami Heat G
The Heat saw another great year from Dwyane Wade last season as the veteran averaged 21.2 points, 5.1 assists, five rebounds and 1.9 steals in 34.7 minutes per game. He also shot a remarkable 52.1 percent from the floor. There’s no denying his immense impact that he has on the Heat whenever he’s on the floor.
However, you can’t disregard the fact that Wade showed signs of breaking down at the end of last year and in the postseason. Whether it’s his knees or back or whatever ailment, anything that compromises Wade’s explosive play in any capacity decreases his value. He has had the summer to recover and those minor injuries could be behind him, but at 31 years old it’s hard to have unwavering faith in that being the case. Even with that, though, he’s a top-10 player. Wade is special, even as a second-option.
9. Russell Westbrook – Oklahoma City Thunder G
Hands down, Russell Westbrook was the hardest player to place on this list. Before finding out that he’ll miss a projected month and a half of the regular season, you could make a pretty respectable case for him being a top-five player in the league, especially after seeing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs with Westbrook sidelined with the knee injury.
Westbrook is often criticized for not being a “true” point guard, but his explosive playmaking are exactly what makes him special and part of the reason OKC is such a dangerous team in this league. He’s fiery, pesky and supremely talented. With him being out for around a quarter of the season, though, he has to be dropped a little bit, which is what lands him at ninth.
8. Tony Parker – San Antonio Spurs G
The Spurs may still have Tim Duncan and a potential breakout star in Kawhi Leonard, but this team doesn’t make the Finals last season without Tony Parker. His ability to run Popovich’s offense, facilitate for his teammates with his passing and movement, and score in a number of ways make him enormously vital to San Antonio.
Parker averaged 20.3 points, 7.6 assists and three boards in 32.9 minutes per game last season while shooting a fantastic 52.2 percent from the floor and 35.3 percent from three. His floater is one of the most lethal shots in the game today and it’s just one of his many weapons. Maybe he benefits from his situation, but you can’t argue with what he does in that system.
7. Kevin Love – Minnesota Timberwolves F
Kevin Love showed up at Minnesota Timberwolves media day looking noticeably trimmer and muscular. More importantly, Love showed up to Wolves media day 100 percent healthy. The Wolves were lost with their star power forward out for the majority of last season and the results reflected that.
Love is one of the most versatile and effective big men in the league. Offensively, he has the ability to score from almost any position on the court, especially after becoming a dead-eye shooter from long-range in recent years. More than that, he’s a better defender than many may think, especially with how often he’s relied upon defensively in Minnesota. Those attributes don’t even factor in that Love is arguably the best rebounder in the game of basketball. Love is healthy and playing with the best supporting cast of his career, which should mean a career-year from the big forward.
6. Carmelo Anthony – New York Knicks F
Many people, myself included, have criticized New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony over the years. He’s not as efficient scorer as he could be and often takes ill-advised shots. He also doesn’t seem to always give maximum effort on the defensive side of the ball. That being said, no one is better at that type of game than Melo and the Knicks are virtually nothing without him.
Criticize him all you want for how gets his points, but Melo knows how to score. He’s shockingly physical and can play with his back to the basket, but also has the ability to knock down jumpers from any spot on the floor. When engaged, Melo translates his physicality and savvy into being a versatile defender as well. Some people wouldn’t have Anthony this high, but he’s too talented and too productive not to in my eyes.
5. James Harden – Houston Rockets G
Before landing Dwight Howard (we’ll get to him) this summer, the Houston Rockets were already going to be in the playoff mix in the Western Conference. The biggest reason why is undoubtedly James Harden, who was their prized acquisition of the previous summer when they pulled off a blockbuster trade just days before the regular season got underway.
In his first time as a featured player on a team, Harden excelled. In 78 games he averaged 25.9 points, 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 38.3 minutes per game while shooting 43.8 percent from the floor and 36.8 percent from long-range. In Houston’s offense that loves to get up and down and fire up shots at will, Harden is near ideal. Add Dwight to the mix and the man with the beard that quiets crying infants should be even better this season.
4. Dwight Howard – Houston Rockets C
Speaking of Dwight Howard, he comes in at number four. Based off of last season alone, there’s no way he would be this high. However, Howard was laboring through a variety of injuries last season that really affected his performance, as well as being in a situation with the Lakers where he was happy, as we all know by now after his free agency saga.
Through the preseason, Howard seems to have bought into the high-octane style of the Rockets and has been active in the pick-and-roll—two things that can’t be said of his time in L.A. When he buys into a system like that, he’s a deadly offensive player to go along with being one of the best interior defenders and rebounders in the game. If you’re expecting the Howard from last season, guess again.
3. Chris Paul – Los Angeles Clippers G
Over the past few seasons, Chris Paul has firmly established himself as the premier point guard in the NBA. There’s no one at the position that can lead, score, facilitate and defend at the level that Paul can on a consistent basis. On those merits alone, Paul belongs in the top-five of any rankings.
However, what vaults him into the top-three is the fact that the Clippers have now surrounded him with more weapons on the wings. Playing with those guys will certainly help Paul as opponents won’t be able to put the same kind of pressure on him. Just looking at the Clippers’ roster around Paul, a 20-12 year isn’t out of the question for the guard.
2. Kevin Durant – Oklahoma City Thunder F
Kevin Durant is the second best player in the league and there’s really nothing to debate here. With his size, length, and shooting ability, Durant can score from anywhere inside of what seems like 35 feet at will. He’s just that good. Throw in the fact that he’s still improving as a defender, rebounder, and playmaker and he becomes even more valuable.
The big test for Durant this season will be how he performs in the month and a half without Westbrook. I expect him to have more success than he did in the playoffs without Westbrook as the Thunder will have more time to prepare, but I’m also curious to see how he’ll adjust to being a guy that is asked to do it all for OKC. If his first six years in the NBA are any indication, though, he’ll continue to succeed.
1. LeBron James – Miami Heat F
In the interest of surprising absolutely no one who has watched the NBA over the past few seasons, LeBron James comes in at number one in these rankings.
Simply put, the debate about James is no longer about if he’s the best player in the NBA, but where he ranks among the greatest to ever play the game. That’s just the level that he’s on right now. He has rings now. He can do anything that’s asked of him on a basketball court and do it in impressive fashion. He is basically a demigod competing against mere men. This is LeBron’s league right now and as he tries to lead the Heat to a three-peat, I don’t see anyone changing that.