This is part six of a seven-part series on my analysis of Sports Illustrated’s top 100 NBA players of 2014. We have now entered the top 20 and will be moving on to the top 10 next. This area can be the most debated group among sports writers and fans alike. Whatever your stance may be, I challenge you to read unbiasedly and consider all arguments made. To see my first five installments, you can click below.
|20. Kyrie Irving ||20. Dwight Howard |
|19. Blake Griffin ||19. Roy Hibbert |
|18. LaMarcus Aldridge||18. Blake Griffin |
|17. Chris Bosh ||17. LaMarcus Aldridge|
|16. Dirk Nowitzki||16. Deron Williams |
|15. Stephen Curry ||15. Rajon Rondo |
|14. Marc Gasol||14. Stephen Curry |
|13. Kevin Love||13. Kyrie Irving|
|12. Derrick Rose||12. Dwyane Wade|
|11. James Harden||11. Kevin Love|
20. Dwight Howard (C, Houston Rockets)
Oh, how I have longed to write about this. Yes, you have read correctly … I am ranking Dwight Howard at No. 20. Sports Illustrated has ranked Howard at No. 7, but I challenge their stance simply: How can Howard be a top 10 player when he possesses a serious lack of a proficient post game?
Dwight Howard possesses an incredible amount of strength and is possibly the best athlete in the league behind only LeBron James. But this is the NBA, not college or high school and a center cannot simply hope to overpower him defender and finish with a thunderous dunk. Although, as previously stated, Howard possess incredible strength, his footwork as a center is borderline embarrassing.
If we are to call Dwight Howard a great center then we must compare him to the great centers of all time. Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul Jabbar were all centers who played back-to-the-basket, had incredible footwork and had a go-to post move that they could perform with consistency. Howard desperately lacks all of these.
To his credit, it is not entirely his fault. As a rookie coming into the league with Orlando, coach Stan Van Gundy primarily used Howard to execute pick-and-rolls to perfection rather than develop his post game. This greatly limited the development of Howard’s game and due to the fact that he remained in Orlando for eight seasons, he is now at a point in his career where it will be incredibly difficult to break bad habits. Howard chose to leave Los Angeles for Houston because he wanted to win.
Despite what all Lakers fans (including me) think about Howard, he will be surrounded by two of the great post players of all time in Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon and if anyone can teach Dwight some solid post moves, it would be them. However, I would not expect him to learn so quickly. Let’s think about it like this: Dwight Howard has essentially no post game and if Hakeem and McHale attempt to teach him advanced post moves, it would be like attempting to teach a child advanced calculus without having learned algebra. If he has no basic foundation of understanding (footwork) then how will Howard be able to comprehend advanced work? No, Dwight Howard is not the best center in the league…that player comes next.
Listen to the “Big AARP” on this one … he knows what he’s talking about.
You tell ‘em too, Kareem.
19. Roy Hibbert (C, Indiana Pacers)
Yes, that’s right, everyone … Roy Hibbert is the best center in the league. We saw during the playoffs when the Pacers faced the Miami Heat just how important a center with established post moves can be.
During the Eastern Conference Finals last season, Hibbert averaged 22.1 points and 12 rebounds while torching the Heat in every way possible down low. His three most popularly exhibited post moves, a jump hook, drop step and a baseline spin proved to be defenseless against the undersized Heat and almost resulted in their downfall.
His postseason PER of 21.2 ranks second among centers just behind Brook Lopez. Simply put, Hibbert is a better center because he has an established post game and Howard does not. Hibbert becomes more of a threat down low because 1) he has a go-to move (actually more than one) and 2) because he has multiple go-to moves he is more difficult to defend.
Despite Howard’s superior strength, Hibbert has been developed to be a true center and not just a pick-and-roll threat, which is much more threatening to a defense than someone who simply attempts to use brute strength to overpower opponents. Roy Hibbert, now entering his fifth year, has advanced in his development as a center far more than Dwight Howard has going into his tenth year.
By the time Hibbert enters his 10th year, he will have perfected his post game and will be the most feared big man in the game. Roy Hibbert, not Dwight Howard, is the best center in the league, and No. 19 on this list.
Ever seen Dwight Howard do any of this?
18. Blake Griffin (PF, Los Angeles Clippers)
Blake Griffin is simply a freak athlete and one of the game’s most talented big men. As this amazing athlete, he is the perfect partner for star point guard Chris Paul and Paul and Griffin run the pick-and-roll to perfection, to which the result is a monstrous posterization on the unfortunate soul who chooses to attempt to take the ball from the game’s highest flyer.
Last season Griffin averaged 18 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while posting a PER of 22.4, which ranks second in the league among power forwards and 12th in the league overall. Griffin uses his magnificent athletic ability to both overpower opponents on the offensive end and impose his will on the defensive end.
Having said all that, there is one weakness in Griffin’s game that is preventing him from becoming the best power forward in the league: his shooting. Blake Griffin has struggled greatly with his shooting since entering the professional spotlight and has relied on his superior athleticism to score his points in the paint, where he is above the league average in shooting percentage at 66.1 percent, an incredible mark.
Once he steps outside of the paint, however, he struggles greatly, averaging near or severely less than than the league average in shooting percentage. Griffin’s inability to shoot has a direct effect on the Clippers lack of ability to establish a half court offense.
If Griffin can become a more effective and consistent shooter, we can see his game evolve to resemble that of Hall of Famer Karl Malone. Griffin, who is more athletically gifted than Malone, does not hold his shooting prowess. Griffin’s ability to shoot well will add another weapon in the Clippers’ arsenal and make them incredibly difficult to beat, and maybe even a title contender. If Blake can combine his athleticism with consistent shooting, he will be the best power forward in the league.
For now, he comes in at No. 18.
17. LaMarcus Aldridge (PF, Portland Trail Blazers)
LaMarcus Aldridge could challenge for the No. 1 spot in the power forward rankings, but only if he cuts back on his long two-pointers and starts taking smarter shots. The more he plays right around the basket, the better. Last season, Aldridge averaged 21.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game and finished the 2012-13 campaign with a PER of 20.4, which ranks seventh in the league among the power forwards.
Aldridge is one of the better shooting forwards in the league, averaging 48 percent from the field and taking most of his shots outside of the key. However, the big man also shot only 41 percent from outside of the paint, a percentage that really isn’t going to cut it if he wants to justify letting fly with such frequency. He should be stepping in to 10 to 15 feet, where he shot 49.2 percent.
Having said that, Aldridge is another one of those big men who truly excels on both ends of the court. He’s a great scorer, a solid rebounder, a surprisingly effective passer and a defender capable of carrying the front-court in the absence of another standout. To fully achieve status as the best power forward in the game, Aldridge needs to step back into the paint and take a majority of his shots there, because that is where he is most effective. LaMarcus Aldridge earns the No. 17 spot.
16. Deron Williams (PG, Brooklyn Nets)
SI originally had Deron Williams ranked at No. 24, which seems considerably low to me considering Williams has been one of the most effective guards in the league since entering eight years ago. Last season Williams averaged 18.9 points and 7.7 assists per game while finishing the season with a PER of 20.3, which ranks seventh in the league among point guards.
Williams started the season very strong and held the team together despite a lackluster performance from Joe Johnson in the early going. While he has been somewhat inconsistent over the past 2 seasons, he is poised to get back to premier form for the 2013-14 campaign.
For a portion of his career Williams quietly averaged better than 10 assists per game for four consecutive seasons and will be given the test of leading a star-studded Brooklyn Nets to the postseason and beyond. For one, his ankle should be healthier. He also has one of the greatest point guards of all time guiding him now.
Coach Jason Kidd plans to push Williams to get back to averaging double-digit assists. So with some solid new additions to work with in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, health and added motivation, expect to see Williams back in the thick of the point guard discussions. The pressure is on, so he really has no choice but to excel this season. Deron Williams definitely deserves a spot in the top 20; he earns the No. 16 spot.
15. Rajon Rondo (PG, Boston Celtics)
Rajon Rondo is the closest thing we have to Magic Johnson in today’s game. His court vision is by far the best in the league and his ability to find his teammates for easy scores is beyond comparison. Last season Rondo averaged 13.7 points and 11.1 assists per game while finishing the regular season with a PER of 18.1 which ranks 12th among the league’s point guards.
He has led the league in assists the last two years and has averaged double figures in the same category for three straight years. His unselfish and pass-first attitude allows for everyone around him to be a better player. In addition, Rondo has the innate ability to get to the basket at will while at the same time finishing with accuracy or finding his teammates for the best possible shot.
His devastating ACL tear sprung more problems for the Celtics who looked completely lost without their floor general in uniform. Rondo presence on the court represents an organized unit that makes few mistakes and works hard to find the open man to take the best shot possible. Rondo is also one of the best defenders in the league; last season he averaged 1.8 steals per game, which ranks seventh among point guards.
He is one of the game’s ultimate playmakers. However, like John Wall, Rondo struggles with consistency in his shooting. While Rondo is a serious threat when he drives to the basket, he makes himself extremely easy to guard due to his inconsistent shooting ability. If Rondo can hone his shooting game and combine that will his incredible passing ability, he will be the best point guard in the league.
Rondo now becomes the true leader of a Boston Celtics team that just cleaned house and is now in rebuilding mode. His teammates will now look to only him to facilitate and create offensive opportunities for the team. That is a big responsibility for a single player to take on, but as talented as Rondo is, he can handle it. Rajon Rondo gets the No. 15 spot.
14. Stephen Curry (PG, Golden State Warriors)
This young man can flat-out shoot the ball and had one heck of a season last year. His spectacular play led the Warriors past the first round of the playoffs against a very resilient Denver Nuggets team and almost pulled off the upset of the decade against the San Antonio Spurs.
Last season Curry averaged 22.9 points and seven assists per game. His points mark ranks second in the league among point guards and seventh in the league overall. He also finished the season with a PER of 21.3 which ranks fifth in the league among point guards. In addition to his sensational regular season play, which included a remarkable 54 points against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, he rose to the occasion of playoff basketball and continued to perform with excellence.
During the 2013 playoff campaign Curry averaged 23.4 points and 8.1 assists per game, both increases from his season averages. Going into the 2013-14 season, Curry remains the leader on a Warriors team that will continue to be a very real threat to the rest of the Western Conference.
Complemented by fellow “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson, he and Curry represent the best shooting backcourt in the league. With the addition of Andre Iguodala, these Warriors have the potential to make a special run. Curry is not only the best shooter in the league but he is also one of the best playmakers; the Warriors are going to need every last bit of his playmaking and leadership if they wish to make it further in the playoffs than last year. Stephen Curry earns the No. 14 spot.
13. Kyrie Irving (PG, Cleveland Cavaliers)
It confuses me how SI could possibly rank Kyrie Irving at N0. 20 after the season he had last year. After spending only two years in the league, Irving has established himself as one of the best guards in the league and a leader for the future of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Last season Irving averaged 22.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and six assists per game. His points per game mark ranks him third in the league among point guards and eighth in the league overall. He also finished the season with a PER of 21.5, which ranks fourth among point guards. As a rookie coming into the league, Irving already possessed the ball handling and basket attacking skills that a professional basketball player needs, but at the same time he had the ability to shoot the ball with consistency.
Last season, Irving shot close to 40 percent from the 3-point line (which he also accomplished during his rookie year), which ranks top 10 in the league for point guards. Going into this season, enormous expectations surround both Irving and the Cavs, who some suspect could make a playoff run in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. With added talent of Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and rookie Anthony Bennett and the resurgence of Anderson Varejao, Irving is now surrounded by enough talent to improve his assist averages and not take so much of the offensive load on his shoulders. Don’t underestimate this young man, and as alter ego, Uncle Drew would say, “don’t reach young blood.” Kyrie Irving comes in at No. 13.
12. Dwyane Wade (SG, Miami Heat)
I have an incredibly hard time putting Dwyane Wade in the top 10 as SI has. Make no mistake though, I am not dismissing Wade and claiming he is not one of the league’s best … on the contrary.
Wade is one of the league’s elite, but has shown serious signs of age over the past few years. Since his miraculous year of 2008-09 where he averaged 30.8 points, five rebounds and 7.5 assists per game, Wade’s averages have dropped to a 21.2 points and five assists per game. While these are still more than above average numbers, Wade is simply not the player we once saw with unlimited amounts of explosiveness.
These days, he has been plagued by knee injuries and who knows what else. During the Heat’s run during the playoffs last year, Wade’s performance became even worse due to injury. During the postseason, Wade averaged 15.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists while averaging a PER almost 6 points lower than his regular season numbers. This has absolutely nothing to do with a depleting of skills, no.
Wade has been severely plagued with injuries over the last five years and we have slowly seen his play diminish; it only became visible this year because of his lack of performance during the playoffs. Over the last two season Wade as missed a total of 64 games. The big question going into this season is will he stay healthy enough to help LeBron James and Chris Bosh compete for a third straight world championship. Hopefully, we don’t see this great player become a rebirth of Tracy McGrady, who suffered from numerous injuries that, sadly, cut his potentially Hall of Fame career short.
Wade is still a game changing player that has the heart of a lion, but he is not a top 10 player in this league anymore. Dwyane Wade gets the No. 12 spot.
11. Kevin Love (PF, Minnesota Timberwolves)
The only thing holding Kevin Love back is injury. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the most uniquely talented players in the NBA, capable of drilling 3-pointers while competing for the league lead in rebounds per game. In fact, now that Dwight Howard and Omer Asik will be competing with each other for boards in Houston, Love should be the prohibitive favorite for the rebounding crown.
There are only two true knocks on Love. First is that he hasn’t been able to carry a team to the playoffs. But which power forward competing with him has in recent years? David West, Tim Duncan and Blake Griffin were the only three elite power forwards to make the postseason in 2012-13, and it’s hard to use the word “carry” in either situation.
Love doesn’t have any excuses this year. Not with the level of talent that surrounds him in Minnesota. Secondly, he has to start playing better defense. Love is by no means a liability, but he must prove that the porosity of his play last season was an effect of the injuries he suffered. Given his limitations as an athlete and his below-the-rim game, it’s remarkable that Love could surpass the high fliers and all-time greats at his position. Yet he’s done so with a unique skill set. Not only is he the best rebounding power forward in the league, he’s the best 3-point shooting forward in the league (sorry, Dirk).
With an improved supporting cast in Minnesota, Love now must prove he can lead a playoff team. Kevin Love comes in at No. 15.