While this slideshow discusses 10 players who will shape the future of the NBA, it's almost more fun to share the anti-list in these instances—that is, the players who fell just short of inclusion.
Andrew Bynum, Greg Monroe, John Wall, Jrue Holiday, Jeremy Lin and Paul George are all fine young players who may one day set the league on fire with their prodigious talents. But they aren't strong bets to change the way the NBA game is played, nor are they marketing machines who'll shape fan perception.
The players on this list are potentially transformational talents. They will have a say in how we think of the NBA and the trajectory of the league for years to come.
Some will meet their sky-high potential, and others will fall short, but the successes and failures alike will leave an indelible mark on basketball for generations.
We should get the “knocks” out of the way.
Cousins shoots a woefully low field-goal percentage for a center, he’s a questionable teammate and to say he has a problem with authority would be a gross understatement.
But he makes this list on the basis of one criterion: He does things on the court that we’ve never seen a man his size do before, and he’s begun to do them with increasing regularity.
There are strong indicators that he’ll one day solve his attitudinal issues, and once he does, there’s little stopping him from becoming the best center in the league. That bears repeating: the best center in the league, without qualification.
On the court, Cousins reaching those heights may be a matter of addition by subtraction: Once he stops taking the jumpers that are dragging down his efficiency, he'll look a lot more like the dominant force that his talent projects him to be.
Provided he returns to health, Eric Gordon could become the NBA's most physically dominant 2-guard in short order.
His strong build allows him to bully his way to the basket, where he absorbs contact without changing his trajectory. And because he sports one of the best shooting strokes in the game, defenders have little choice but to crowd him on the perimeter and concede his dribble-drive.
In the 2010-11 season, he averaged 6.2 free-throw attempts a game on the strength of his inside-outside game and was no worse for wear after returning from a knee injury this season, when in nine games he got to the line 7.2 times per outing.
The health question is not an insignificant one, however, as Gordon has missed a combined 103 games in his last three seasons. During his only season at Indiana, he began the year on a torrid shooting streak before an injury to his left wrist hampered his production in the second half of the season (via the Hoosier Scoop).
A restricted free agent this summer and a strong candidate for a max contract offer, Gordon will either take up the mantle as the league’s premier off-guard or become an albatross that hangs over his team’s payroll.
Kevin Love was the best power forward in the NBA this season by every conceivable metric, but we couldn’t simply hand him the title until we’d seen a few things first.
Namely, whether one of the more palpable candidates—Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge—did something to separate himself from the pack.
We had our reasons. Blake is more exciting. Dirk is the returning champ. LaMarcus is the more impactful defender and sports a superior back-to-the-basket game.
Then, one by one, the excuses fell as none of the trio did much to best him, and now we can settle comfortably on the conclusion that, as “4's” go, there’s none better than Kevin Love.
Well, the evidence was overwhelming from the outset. Love led all big men in PER for virtually the entire season and ended 2011-12 at 25.41 (good for fifth among all players), via ESPN.
His Minnesota Timberwolves were streaking toward a lower-playoff seed before Ricky Rubio tore his ACL.
His defense, once a weakness, has improved by leaps and bounds.
Not only can we call him the best power forward without reservation, but it doesn't appear that he'll see a challenger in the foreseeable future.
There are two ways to evaluate Russell Westbrook’s game: We can compare it to that of other elite point guards or to some vague idea of what a point guard should be.
Analysts and fans too often take the latter approach, which puts Westbrook in an impossible position. He’ll never pass often enough or shoot seldom enough to satisfy our untethered expectations for point guard play.
Where he passes with flying colors is in direct comparison to other players at his position.
He’s a far superior defender to Deron Williams, who’s spent the last two seasons in a state of unashamed ambivalence on that end of the floor.
And he’s here. Playing. Right now, in the NBA Finals. For the second season in a row, he’s one of the last standing among his point guard peers, and that, in itself, is significant.
Blake Griffin’s first postseason run should leave us unconvinced that he can become a top-five player.
He looked hesitant when he had to choose between open jump shots and forcing his drive. The highlight-reel dunks that abounded in the regular season were suddenly in short supply.
Most perplexing is that Griffin’s rebounding prowess—his only elite NBA skill at this juncture—all but vanished. The Clippers power forward averaged a mere 6.9 rebounds in 11 playoff games as Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tim Duncan effectively bodied him out of the lane (via Basketball-Reference).
The prospect of Griffin becoming an MVP-level talent was once considered a matter of “when, not if.” Not anymore—the “if” is now very much in play.
However, he’s a hard worker and a leader and by far the most explosive athlete in the game, and as long as those traits are in play, his potential alone will demand that we pay attention.
Derrick Rose was evolving, yet again, at the beginning of this past season. That’s the tragic subplot of his injury that few talk about.
He was seeing the floor better—recognizing the trap earlier. He’d slowed his drives to the basket a touch so plays would have time to develop.
His 2011-12 numbers won’t reflect his improvement, and it makes sense that they wouldn’t: D-Rose’s evolution into a complete floor general was akin to a golfer changing his stroke.
Growing pains were to be expected, but a leap was on the way.
Instead of trying to explain what Rose will look like as a finished product, I direct interested parties to clips from one game in particular: Chicago at Milwaukee on March 26, 2011.
Rose goes for 30 points and 17 assists, yanking the Bucks defense like a yo-yo with a perfect blend of drives, jump shots and dishes. It was his most balanced game as a pro and his most mature.
That game, more than any other, is why even if Rose returns from rehab a diminished athlete (God forbid), his best basketball may lie ahead.
Kyrie Irving might be the most precocious NBA star in a league that’s all about precociousness.
He began the season as a 19-year-old with only 11 college games under his belt and immediately established himself as one of the best clutch players in the league.
His shot is already refined (39.9 percent from three), and while he may not be an athlete on the level of Derrick Rose or John Wall, his superior footwork allows him to get to the rim at will.
But the best of what Kyrie Irving has to offer can’t be quantified.
He’s poised beyond his years and not intimidated by NBA competition or the league’s off-court challenges. After just one season, he’s already become one of the league’s most marketable personalities as he churns out national spot after national spot, showcasing his comfort with the camera and comedic chops.
In ways that are both natural and self-fashioned, James Harden has become one of the NBA’s most recognizable icons.
Let’s start with his game. He moves in the half court at odd diagonals unlike anything we’ve seen before—like a chess knight, or some kind of herky-jerky fish. Then he caps his drives with a Euro-step that puts him in the lane, where defenders have to foul or watch him go clean to the rim.
Then there’s the Beard—that full lustrous face-mane that's made him a folk hero in Oklahoma City and endeared him to even the most casual fans.
At just 22, and in possession of a game that's built to last, Harden promises to be one of the NBA's most front-and-center athletes for the next decade or more.
Is Ricky Rubio the league’s most entertaining player?
He’s as flashy and effective a passer as the league has had in several decades. While it remains to be seen whether he’s a floor general on the level of Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson or Chris Paul, on aesthetics alone Rubio is more highlight-worthy than any of the three.
Regardless of the Timberwolves’ fortunes, Rubio is and will remain one of the NBA’s most influential players by virtue of having introduced a singular style. With his uncanny anticipation, he appears to decide where defenders as well as teammates get to move on the court.
That's why when he went down with an ACL injury in March of this year, he received such an outpouring of support from fellow players (via Yahoo! Sports). He’s a thrill to watch and, by all accounts, play against, which made the loss especially difficult to bear.
The good news, however, is that none of Rubio’s best gifts—his hands, his size, his anticipation—are predicated on athleticism, so a return to those same lofty heights is all but assured, post-rehabilitation.
The question is, will Kevin Durant shape the league or own it?
A 23-year-old superstar is an anomaly. But it would be even more anomalous if he stopped improving this early in his career.
Which means that Kevin Durant might not just get better, but much better—a scary thought considering that he has a chance to establish himself as the NBA’s best player in the coming week.
If Durant can continue to make gains as a playmaker and add a post game a la Dirk Nowitzki, we could be looking at a basketball dynasty in the mold of the '90s Bulls.
Comparing Durant and Westbrook to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen seems a lazy analysis in every regard but one: The Thunder have begun to put the same psychological choke hold on the league that those Chicago teams did. Throughout the playoffs they’ve taken their opponents’ best punches and shaken them off as if they were for naught.
The Lakers’ late lead in Game 2 of the Western Conference semis vanishes once Durant decides enough is enough.
The Spurs jump out to a two-game lead in the conference finals before Durant and Co. decide to run off four straight wins.
The Heat go up 13 points in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, but then all gains are nullified by a Durant 17-point fourth quarter.
It must be fatiguing to watch your best basketball absorbed and then surpassed so routinely. That fatigue—that helplessness—is what keys dynasties. And Durant, as an individual talent, is well on his way to cementing a concern in his opponents' minds that there’s nothing they can do to limit his ascent.