Grading the NBA's Top 10 Superstars on Their 2012 Performance

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2012

Grading the NBA's Top 10 Superstars on Their 2012 Performance

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    The world isn't ending, but the 2012 portion of the NBA season is.

    Thus, what better time to reflect on the performance of the league's top superstars than now?

    Impressions surrounding the Association's best players have changed a great deal as this year's campaign continues to progress. Expectations were set prior to the crusade's onset, and an athlete's ability—or inability—to meet the standard significantly impacts his standing within the league's superstar hierarchy. 

    Some, like Avery Johnson's good friend Deron Williams (kidding), have seen their stock plummet, while others, like the ageless Kobe Bryant, have seen theirs skyrocket. 

    But which players are now ultimately riding the top-10 wave? And how have they fared en route to doing so?

    Let's make it our end-of-year resolution to find out. 

     

    *All stats in this article are accurate as of Dec. 27, 2012.

Those Impacted by Injuries

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    I figured before the comment section exploded with the list of notable absences, I'd preface my selections with a brief explanation of how injuries impacted the rankings.

    Stars who are currently injured or are still working their way back to form after rehabilitation were immediately disqualified. Though they would not be guaranteed to make the list if completely healthy, they would have at least been considered.

     

    Andrew Bynum, C, Philadelphia 76ers

    Remember when we were starting to believe that Bynum was a top-10 talent? Yeah, me neither. It's been that long since he's played.

     

    Kevin Love, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves

    The power forward's hand is still not all there yet and his eye injury didn't help his case, either. Not sure if he would have made the top 10 regardless, but had he been healthy from the season's inception, there would have undoubtedly been a case to be made.

     

    Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks

    Though I wish I could have at least looked at Nowitzki and considered him eligible for this list, he's been back for like a second. He's another star who may not have made this extensive cut (courtesy of age), but again, he would have at least received some consideration. At least we can find solace in knowing that he's on the court once again.

     

    Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls

    There isn't a bone in my body that doesn't believe that Rose would be a top-10 talent if he wasn't still nursing his torn ACL. Hopefully, he'll be able to return to his explosive self and, subsequently, a list like this soon enough. But for now, he's just another case of "what if?"

Those Who Just Missed the Cut

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    Chris Bosh, PF, Miami Heat

    I shudder to think where the Heat would be without LeBron James (especially after that performance against the Charlotte Bobcats), but I also cringe at the thought of where they would be without Bosh as well. He is one of the most versatile bigs in the game and his impact on both ends of the floor continues to be overlooked at certain points. But while I'm fully prepared to back him as a top-15 talent, an appearance within the top 10 would be a bit of a stretch.

     

    Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles

    I'm personally not convinced that Griffin is ready to be considered a top-10 talent just yet. That said, amidst a bout with a burst bursa sac, he has shown he is well on his way. Sure, he's still the benefactor of precisely placed Chris Paul passes, but he's also shown an improved back-to-the-basket game. I'm not entirely turned off by his jump shot or off-the-dribble sets anymore, either. But, while his stock is on the rise, he's just not quite there yet.

     

    Dwight Howard, C, Los Angeles Lakers

    Sorry, Dwight. To be honest, I considered tossing him in with the injured players because his back has clearly dampered his performance, but he's played the entire season, so it just didn't feel right. I still believe that he's one of the best players in the NBA, and when unconditionally healthy, he'd certainly make this list. That said, his lack of aggression on offense, coupled with his inability to reverse the defensive narrative with the Los Angeles Lakers, has left him just outside the top 10.

     

    Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Kyrie, you're a stud. You've injected hope into a seemingly hopeless franchise and you continue to astound me with your ever present sense of on-court responsibility. I'm also keen on your perpetual, two-way explosiveness as well. As such, I fully believe that you'll be here one day. Just not today.

     

    Tony Parker, PG, San Antonio Spurs

    San Antonio's point guard continues to turn heads with his consistency. He's one of the most crafty passers in the game and is a huge part of the reason why the Spurs continue to toil with perfection. That said, on such a selective list, your numbers and understated defense just weren't enough to carry you right on through.

10. Rajon Rondo, PG, Boston Celtics

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    Age: 26

    2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 11.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.3 blocks on 50.4-percent shooting

    Grade: B+

    Both the Boston Celtics and Rajon Rondo scare me, albeit for very different reasons.

    Though the Celtics continue to struggle to keep their head above water, Rondo—brawls and temper tantrums aside—has been magnificent.

    Not only did Rondo stretch his double-digit assist streak to 37 games earlier in the season, but he's shooting a career-best 32.4 percent from beyond the arc. That may not seem like much, but it is.

    Let's not neglect to mention his knack for clogging the passing lanes on defense, either. His two steals a night rank fifth in the Association. He's also first in assists and is the only player in the league dishing out at least 10 a night as well.

    The overly selfless point guard does need to score more, but with an improved jump shot and continued excellence in directing an offense, there's no doubt that he's established himself as a top-10 player for 2012.

    As far as an MVP candidate, though? I'm going to hold off there.

9. Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat

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    Age: 30

    2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks on 51.3-percent shooting

    Grade: B

    Ramon Sessions might disagree, but even in the midst of a topsy-turvy campaign, Dwyane Wade is still a top-10 talent.

    Perhaps what is most impressive about Wade is that he's shooting over 50 percent from the field and posting a 22.7 PER, and many are still inclined to jump aboard the declination bandwagon.

    Truth be told—stats aside—Wade isn't the same player he once was. He's neither as explosive nor as acrobatic. That said, he's still pretty damn explosive and acrobatic all the same.

    Wade remains one of only seven players in the league averaging at least 20 points, four rebounds and four assists per game, and he's still one of the most efficient two-way players you'll meet.

    As he continues to age, though, I would like to see him hone his jumper a bit more. His 31.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc is a career high, but that needs to climb even further.

    He can't attack the rim with reckless abandon forever, after all.

    Still, to watch Wade and not be impressed is impossible.

8. James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets

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    Age: 23

    2012-13 Per-Game Statistics: 25.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.5 blocks on 44.9-percent shooting

    Grade: A-

    James Harden has looked good as a member of the Houston Rockets. Like really good.

    Not only is Harden currently fourth in scoring, but he's one of only four players averaging at least 20 points, four rebounds, five assists and one steal per game.

    Much was made of his departure from the Oklahoma City Thunder, about how he would handle it, about how he would struggle and about how Houston wasn't a good fit.

    Well, who's laughing now? And better yet, who's still not shaving now?

    Harden, two times over.

    The shooting guard has the Rockets in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race and has further established himself as one of the most versatile playmakers in the game.

    Would we like to see his 44.9-percent shooting and 35.9-percent clip from deep increase? Of course, but with Harden, you have to take the good with the bad.

    Especially when there isn't that much "bad" to speak of.

7. Tim Duncan, PF, San Antonio Spurs

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    Age: 36

    2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 10 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.9 steals and 2.5 blocks on 49.9-percent shooting

    Grade: A

    Tim Duncan, you are the man. No, seriously, you are.

    The ageless forward is sixth in the league with a PER of 25 and he is one of just 12 players currently averaging a double-double per game. His 2.5 blocks a bout have him tied at fourth in the league with Dwight Howard as well.

    Duncan has easily been the most valuable player on the Spurs this season and continues to school bigs much younger and more athletic than he in the art of scoring and defending.

    Personally, I'm not sure you can be much more consistent or aware than him. His timing on defense remains impeccable and his jump shot has never looked better.

    Clearly, Duncan never got the memo that you are supposed to make far less of an impact as you age.

    And we're so very glad he did.

6. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Age: 24

    2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 2.1 steals and 0.4 blocks on 39.9-percent shooting

    Grade: A-

    Plenty of people don't like Russell Westbrook. I am not one of those people.

    I am, however, slightly perturbed by his 39.9-percent shooting from the floor. That needs to change.

    Of course, I'm willing to accept it considering that Westbrook is averaging career highs in rebounds, assists and steals per game. He's also the only player in the NBA to be in the top 10 of points, assists and steals per bout.

    What really sells me on Westbrook—aside from his heightened unselfishness—is his improved defense. Oklahoma City is allowing nearly three points less per 100 possessions with him on the floor, and he's holding opposing point guards to a 14.9 PER. Neither of those are feats he could lay claim to last season.

    Again, Westbrook must improve his shooting efficiency, but his defensive and passing efficiencies are at an all-time high.

    As is his status within the Association.

5. Carmelo Anthony, SF, New York Knicks

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    Age: 28

    2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 28.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.6 blocks on 47.3-percent shooting

    Grade: A-

    If you would have told me Carmelo Anthony was going to be a top-five talent last year, I would have promptly asked if you had recently suffered a head injury. But now, I stand corrected.

    Anthony is having a career year. He's shooting a career-best 43.4 percent from downtown (somewhere, Mike D'Antoni is shaking his head) and his 25.9 PER is also the best of his career, and the fourth-best in the league as well. Oh, and he's second in scoring, too.

    Let's be honest, though. We knew that 'Melo could score—from anywhere. What we were unsure of is if he could defend well on a consistent basis.

    Apparently, he can. He's visibly more engaged defensively and, unlike last season, the Knicks are allowing fewer points with him on the floor.

    Yes, he's become as fragile as Amar'e Stoudemire (I jest), but be aware that he has been injured more than once because of a willingness to chase down loose balls—even if they go into the stands.

    I'm not sure if the Knicks appreciate him sacrificing his body like that, but they sure as hell appreciate the effort.

    As do we.

4. Kobe Bryant, SG, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Age: 34

    2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 30.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.3 blocks on 47.8-percent shooting.

    Grade: A-

    If you're concerned about the Lakers now, just imagine where they would be without Kobe Bryant.

    The shooting guard currently leads the league in scoring, his 37.9-percent three-point clip is the second-best of his career and his 47.8 percent overall conversion rate is a career best.

    Most importantly, Bryant has been willing to assume any role Los Angeles has needed him to.

    Let's not pretend like he isn't shooting, because he is. A lot. But he also willingly shouldered the playmaking responsibilities with Steve Nash on the sidelines and has embraced playing off the ball more since his return.

    I am a bit concerned about Bryant's defense. It's not like he's been a huge disappointment on that end, but some of his rotations have been late or nonexistent.

    That said, at the age of 34, the fifth-leading scorer in NBA history is still a top-five talent.

    I'd like to say I'm surprised, but come on, this is Kobe we're talking about.

    The man's a superstar through and through.

3. Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Age: 27

    2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 9.6 assists, 2.7 steals and 0.0 blocks on 47.2-percent shooting.

    Grade: A-

    Chris Paul is the best point guard (sorry, Rondo) in the NBA. Case closed.

    I'd like the man to score more as well, but he's second in the league in assists, first in steals and second in win shares behind Kevin Durant. He's also emerged as a candidate for both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards.

    Amazingly, though, his impact on the Los Angeles Clippers' success remains understated. Sure, he's received plenty of credit. But not nearly enough.

    This is a Clippers team with the best record in the NBA, but also a Clippers team whose offense is 10 points more potent per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor.

    Thus, it's more than warranted to admit that Los Angeles wouldn't be nearly as formidable an entity without Paul.

    The NBA simply wouldn't be as entertaining, either.

2. Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Age: 24

    2012-13-Per-Game Stats: 28.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks on 51.8-percent shooting.

    Grade: A

    Holy awesome.

    Kevin Durant has looked even better playing without James Harden than Harden himself has looked in Houston.

    Currently, Durant is averaging career highs in rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, field-goal percentage, three-point percentage (43.5) and free-throw percentage (90.4). His 28.3 PER is also a career-high and second in the league.

    Need I say more? Probably not, but I will.

    Oklahoma City's forward is also the only player in the league averaging at least 20 points, eight rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block per game. That's incredible. 

    As is Durant. He's playing better in every facet of the game. His defense has never been more suffocating, he's never been more efficient and there's a legitimate case to be made for him to be this year's MVP.

    Somehow, someway, the already prolific Durant has taken his game to new heights—to the point where LeBron James should be worried.

1. LeBron James, SF, Miami Heat

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    Age: 27

    2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 25.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks on 54.2-percent shooting.

    Grade: A

    Just because LeBron James should be worried about Kevin Durant doesn't mean he's given up his crown as the NBA's version of the Alpha and the Omega. Because he hasn't.

    James continues to play at an exceptionally high level. Like really high. Higher than anyone else in the league, in fact. His 29.6 PER is the highest in the Association and he is shooting a career high both from the field overall and three-point land (42.9 percent) as well.

    As if that's not enough, he also had that ridiculously insane foul-less streak, which was marked by stalwart-esque, not matador-like defense. He's also scored 20 or more points in every game thus far and in 31 consecutive regular-season games (47 if you include playoffs) dating back to last year.

    So yeah, James is still the best player in the league. The same player who has carried the Miami Heat on his back all season. The same player who continues to show us why he is already one of the all-time greats.

    And the same player who has toiled with perfection all season long.