One Way Each of the NBA's Best 15 Players Can Improve Their Game

Joel C. Cordes@@bballJoelNBA Associate EditorJune 7, 2012

One Way Each of the NBA's Best 15 Players Can Improve Their Game

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    It doesn't matter how good you are, you can always get better. Even these upper-echelon NBA stars have facets of their game to improve before next season.

    These are the league's 15 most elite players. Every single one got where they are through a tireless work ethic and attention to detail. If they're going to improve their status and impact, then it's time to address these problem areas.

    There are two ways to love and/or shake your fists at this list: See how these players rank in the NBA's Top 15 AND what they need to improve. Let your voice be heard in the comments section!

    NOTES: Rankings take into account statistical achievements, as well as the degree to which you can build a franchise around each particular player. Keep in mind the basic argument of, "if an NBA GM had only one choice, would they take Player X over Player Y?"

    Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Greg Monroe, Paul Pierce, Blake Griffin, Chris Bosh and Kevin Garnett just missed the cut, though they did receive substantial consideration. Brian Scalabrine did not.

15. LaMarcus Aldridge: Rebound

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    His mid-range shooting is phenomenal, while his low block and defensive traits are getting better every year. Nobody can question LaMarcus Aldridge's toughness either: He successfully filled in at center for large portions of the 2012 season.

    Unfortunately, the lanky Portland Trail Blazer has often been pegged as a scorer-only due to averaging a paltry seven-and-a-half rebounds per game throughout his career. 

    This past year he bumped those numbers up to eight boards per game, but this was still only good for 26th in the league.

    You know there's a problem when you rank 34th in defensive rebounds, trailing even a young swing-man like Evan Turner.

14. Deron Williams: Cut Turnovers

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    Deron Williams is often in the conversation when ranking elite point guards. A few years ago, he was even in a dead heat with Chris Paul for the title of "league's best."

    He's big, explosive, has a well-developed inside/outside game and throws one of the best bounce passes around. Williams is also an above average defender and one of the league's premier assist men.

    Yet, how can Deron Williams even be considered for "best of the best" when he led the league in turnovers per game?

    His four giveaways per contest was not just an aberration or effect of playing for the hapless New Jersey Nets either. While 2012 was certainly his worst, Deron's gaffe totals have been rising nearly every season of his seven-year career.

    Of the "elite" point guards on this list, only Russell Westbrook has a higher career average than Deron Williams' 3.16 turnovers per game. Keep in mind that Westbrook also only has half the sample size to work with so far.

13. Dirk Nowitzki: Recover Sea Legs

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    Dirk Nowitzki is not only the gold standard when it comes to "stretch fours," but he's one of the NBA's best shooters at any position, ever.

    He didn't just make this list as a "thank you" for revolutionizing the way we think of sweet-shooting big men. Say what you want about his ho-hum rebounding numbers and defense, when Dirk is on fire, there STILL isn't a player in the league who can slow him down.

    Unfortunately, 2012 saw a Dirk Nowitzki who was exhausted and laboring, especially as a shooter. Natural aging, the rigors of the successful 2011 NBA championship campaign and playing for the German National team during the offseason clearly caught up to him.

    Nowitzki's numbers were down across the board, but especially troubling was the six percent drop in his general field goal shooting. Hopefully he's getting enough rest this offseason, because Father Time isn't doing him any favors.

12. Carmelo Anthony: Raise Shooting Efficiency

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    It's easy to typecast this volume scorer as a defenseless, shot-happy ball hog. However, doing so is seriously failing to appreciate the beauty and completeness of Carmelo Anthony's offensive game.

    He's one of the NBA's few true inside/outside threats; his pure shooting form and touch are a sight to behold. When engaged, he's also a far more dominating rebounder than people realize. Those who saw him play during the 2008 Olympics finally viewed everything a motivated Anthony had to offer.

    He's a true gamer, but wasn't consistently so in 2012. Whether it's from pushing too hard or not enough, Anthony was a paltry 19th in made field goals, while being 13th in attempts. It's hard to be a Top-10 NBA player when also 77th in field goal percentage.

    Coincidentally, Anthony's rather embarrassing 43 percent shooting was not only the worst since his rookie year, but also matched an even more highly-regard superstar in 2012. As we'll see later though, Kobe Bryant may have had a relevant excuse. Carmelo? Not so much.

11. Russell Westbrook: Assist Teammates

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    Russell Westbrook has all the ingredients to be an elite point guard. His first step compares to fellow lighting bolts Derrick Rose and Tony Parker, but he may even be faster than they are in a straight line.

    It's hard to argue with his 23.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game this season. He's unstoppable when attacking the basket, his shooting has improved each of his four campaigns, he's a pesky defender and nobody outside of Rajon Rondo plays with a bigger chip on their shoulder.

    Yet, Westbrook took a lot of flack for being too much of a ball hog last year. The rumor that this was causing a rift with Durant didn't last for long, and the Oklahoma City Thunder improved nonetheless.

    Yet, this was supposed to be the season where he had more supporting weapons than ever, his shot selection improved and his generosity increased. How is that true if his assists per game DECREASED by nearly three dimes? Westbrook was 18th in the league with his paltry five-and-a-half assists per game, while ranking ninth with 3.6 turnovers.

    Truly elite point guards shouldn't do that.

10. Kevin Love: Remember Position

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    You can't find a relevant historical comparison for Kevin Love. Who else was ever runner-up in rebounding (13.3 boards per game), while also winning the All-Star Game Three Point Shooting Contest and hitting 105 treys on 37 percent for the season?

    Love would make this elite list for his glass cleaning alone, but his relentless motor also applies to passing and low-block scoring. If he continues to match the strides shown through his first four seasons, this 26 point per game scorer will wind up even higher on the list.

    Unfortunately, Kevin Love's new-found sniper role can also be counter-productive. The Minnesota Timberwolves are especially lacking back-to-the-basket scoring. Love can't forget his first power forward responsibilities while attempting 282 treys again.

    There aren't many players in the league who can stretch the floor AND dominate down low like Kevin Love. Hopefully he realizes there are plenty of guys who just sit outside and jack threes all day.

9. Derrick Rose: Improve Floater

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    He admittedly fell due to the season-ending ACL injury, but Derrick Rose is still one of the NBA's top point guards until proven otherwise. 

    The 2011 MVP has the killer cross-over, blow-by step and a never-ending supply of lift. He's unselfish and an aggressive defender, though his true dominance is oftentimes better recognized on the court than in the stat book.

    It would be nice if his outside shooting kept improving, but Rose's biggest problem is the pinball style of play that has made him such a star in the first place. His reckless basket attacks typically made Chicago Bulls fans hold their breath in awe, but now those will be mixed with more than a little bit of worry.

    Rose takes too many big hits, sometimes when he doesn't have to. It's not about tuning down his aggressiveness, but he would be wise to steal Tony Parker's tear-drop floater when returning in 2013. Rather than drawing the body foul every time, Derrick Rose needs to release when the shot is still there.

8. Rajon Rondo: Practice Free Throws

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    Rajon Rondo is proving us all wrong one step at a time. Statistically, he's not a top-10 NBA player. He's not a good three-point shooter. He turns the ball over too much. He doesn't score as much as Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook or Deron Williams.

    Then you watch him play, and the argument is put to rest. His bounce pass, angle of attack and court vision are only rivaled by Steve Nash and Chris Paul.

    He routinely hits clutch shots, even from deep. No point guard rebounds with more ferocity, wreaks as much defensive havoc or has bigger guts when attacking the basket.

    However, let's all keep telling Rajon Rondo that he can't shoot free throws. His .597 percent is not only pathetic, but it's also fourth worst in the league out of qualifying players. Rondo needs to prove the doubters wrong in a big way with this one...

7. Andrew Bynum: Professionalize Demeanor

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    Ever since the end of the 1990s, NBA fans have lamented the lack of classic, elite NBA centers. No one should be making that complaint as long as Andrew Bynum is still playing.

    While Dwight Howard is the superior basketball player right now, Bynum has the better pivot. His footwork and low-block scoring ability are beginning to reach true greatness. He's a legitimate shot blocker and one of the league's top rebounders.

    On the doorstep of his prime, he's now a seven-year veteran and two-time champion at only 24 years of age. Barring a career-threatening injury, Andrew Bynum will be a Hall of Famer when it's all said and done. 

    Yet, his teammates doubt him, the Los Angeles Lakers are a little unsure of his future and fans routinely question when he'll finally buckle down and "get it." Andrew Bynum has all the tools to be one of the greatest centers ever, but his mental and emotional game now have to mature more quickly than his physical traits.

6. Dwyane Wade: Improve Deep Ball

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    Like Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo, the numbers don't always tell the full story of Dwyane Wade's greatness. Sure, he's averaged over 25 points per game during his career, but it's HOW he scores them that really impresses.

    There aren't too many shooting guards past or present that play with his unique blend of power and finesse. You won't find a guard averaging two steals AND a block per game either. Averaging five boards and six assists seals the deal. Dwyane Wade is the complete package.

    Or is he?

    We think of Dwyane Wade as a rangeless, clutch shooter. Yet, he's actually hit less than 30 percent of his career threes. He was so bad from downtown this year (less than 27 percent) that he doesn't even show up among the 122 "best" on the 2012 three-point shooting list.

    The good news? Wade only took 56 treys this season. By the way, that's one more than power forward Drew Gooden.

5. Chris Paul: Don't Wait

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    What can the league's best point guard do to get better? His game is nearly flawless, and he might wind up being the best ever at his position.

    I spent nearly 45 minutes feverishly searching for ANY statistical or anecdotal wart in his game, and I'm back where I started. He's always top three in assists, a consistently prolific scorer, one of the game's best defenders and he has no problem filling up the stat sheet in all categories.

    His shooting percentages are pretty eye-popping, too! 

    So I hate to fall back on something not quite quantifiable, but here it is: Paul oftentimes waits a little too long to take over games. He's such a trusting teammate, that he often allows fellow players to make too many mistakes and miss too many bad shots before he goes into deadly assassin mode. 

    For all of Paul's accolades and impressive play, he's also never advanced beyond the second round of the NBA playoffs. Whether it's game or career-wise, Paul has to take charge without waiting quite so long.

4. Dwight Howard: Make Up Mind

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    Dwight Howard is so good at defense and rebounding that all we're left with are some nit-picks about his drop step and jump hook.

    We could legitimately complain about that Shaquille O'Neal impression at the free throw line. Yet, similar to Shaq, there isn't a better combination of sheer strength, athletic power and leaping ability in the league.

    It's time for people to accept that Howard will always be more Moses Malone and David Robinson than Hakeem Olajuwon. Yet, Howard will easily be in the same sentence with those guys when his career is over.

    Like Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard's biggest weakness lies within.

    He's trying to be all things to all men while controlling every aspect of his future before it's time. He bailed out on teammates this year while pledging allegiance. He locked himself up with the Orlando Magic for another year while still gazing longingly out the window.

    Howard's worst problem in the post is oftentimes his indecision. That malady seems to be spreading.

3. Kobe Bryant: Accept Rest!

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    At a paltry 33 years of age, Bryant has certainly done it all. We don't have to list the five rings, MVP awards, scoring titles, etc. to justify the career journey this guy has made.

    Like Michael Jordan, Kobe has morphed from a reckless gunner to an overbearing icon and on to the respected, epitome of ceaseless effort and drive.

    Because Kobe began his career at age 18, and because he didn't have a baseball layoff like Jordan, Bryant will likely pass nearly all of Michael's career numbers.

    The scary part is that Bryant passed Jordan nearly 100 games ago on the all-time played list. At 33, Kobe is also 17th all-time in minutes played and 36th in games. Talk about tread on the tires.

    If he's going to prolong his career more than a couple of seasons, Bryant needs to begin accepting bench time more consistently. He can't be insulted by a night off once in awhile or an extra few minutes on the pine.

    Yes, he's driven because his team needs him. Yet, with the league's most lucrative contract curbing their cap space, the Los Angeles Lakers need Kobe Bryant around for the long term. 

2. Kevin Durant: Cut Turnovers

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    He's one ring away from probably taking the top spot.

    His explosiveness and length are only paralleled by one other player in the league (the next guy on this list), but Kevin Durant is by far the better shooter. Yet, he's also shaping up to be so much more than just the prolific scorer we all expected.

    The fact that ALL of Durant's numbers continue to increase each year is a testament to the complete star he's becoming. Especially impressive are those eight rebounds per game. That's better than a bunch of power forwards out there, including No. 15 on this list! 

    When watching Kevin Durant, one never gets the impression that he's a sloppy or mistake-prone player, but there he is, third in the league for turnovers per game. In fact, he's averaged over three of them per game for his career.

    Imagine if he could cut one of those per game and turn it into two or three more points? Suddenly, averaging 30-plus points per game might be just the beginning...

1. LeBron James: Play Big

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    This isn't a referendum on rings, so please check that argument at the door for right now...

    For time immortal, LeBron James will be a stat geek's midnight fantasy come true. The video game numbers are so routine now that we hardly stop to appreciate the achievement happening right before our eyes. 

    James does so MANY things at both ends of the court that all we're left to complain about is his overabundance of unselfishness down the stretch.

    Equally impressive is the way that LeBron's shooting percentages have climbed like clockwork each and every year. Not too bad for a guy who supposedly had no outside game coming out of high school, right? Yet, the jump shots are obviously still mortal, and James has one final frontier to conquer.

    Each year we've heard about his post-up game improving. Each year we see a better fall-away jumper, a new running hook, etc.

    However, copying Karl Malone's post game isn't the best that James can (or will have to) do. Until he can back down all defenders, locking them into a series of Kevin McHale up-fakes and jab steps, LeBron will ALWAYS be human.

    Once he can score in the paint without having to first face up or get a full head of steam, we will truly see the unstoppable player. A ring probably comes along with that.