Ranking the NBA’s top 20 stars heading into 2013 is a little like organizing the Forbes list of the world’s richest people into tiers—some guys have it better than others, but really, everyone’s doing pretty darn well.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant are duking it out in the best MVP race in years, and plenty of other stars have climbed a few rungs in the ladder. Life is good among the NBA elite, but who's got it the best?
To make our list, guys naturally have to put up impressive raw statistical figures, but because plain old scoring averages can be misleading, we’re going to pay extra attention to the context in which these guys are accumulating their numbers. Put another way, if a guy is throwing up empty stats for a bad team simply because somebody has to score, we’ll frown on it.
Sorry, Kyrie Irving. Wins matter.
Oh, and before we get started, it's worth mentioning that injured players aren't ranked. So if you were hoping to find Andrew Bynum, Derrick Rose or the recently returned Steve Nash, you'll be disappointed.
2012 is in the books, and we've ranked the top 20 NBA stars (plus some honorable mentions) heading into the new year. Please enjoy.
All stats are accurate through games played Dec. 30, 2012.
Anderson Varejao, C, Cleveland Cavaliers
His rebound rate is second best in the league, he plays extremely hard and he passes the ball unusually well for a big man. If the Cleveland Cavaliers weren’t wallowing in the cellar of the Central division, Anderson Varejao would probably crack the top 20.
Brook Lopez, C, Brooklyn Nets
A couple of things keep Brook Lopez off of the official list. First, the Brooklyn Nets play at a mind-numbingly slow pace because he simply can’t get up and down the floor, a strategic decision that hurts the team. Second, he still doesn’t do enough on the glass for a center—his rebound rate is 29th best at his position.
Joakim Noah, C, Chicago Bulls
Quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. Noah is playing more than ever this season, but his heavy minutes have cut into his rate stats across the board. He’s been a soldier for a Chicago Bulls team missing its MVP, but with his worst rebound rate and true shooting percentage since his rookie year, Noah is proving that he’d be better utilized in a more limited role.
Serge Ibaka, PF, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s emerging big man is almost there…but not quite. He’s showing an improved offensive arsenal and continues to block shots and rebounds at a solid rate, but he’s still just a bit too dependent on others for his offensive opportunities. He’s got as much potential to move up as anyone here, though.
Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers
As the most obvious casualty of our harshness toward “good stats, bad team” guys, Kyrie Irving might very well be a top-10 talent in the NBA. But because he’s putting up his numbers on a go-nowhere team, we can’t justify slotting him among the top 20. And just to throw a little gas on the fire, he’s actually a surprisingly poor defensive player. He’ll move up the list eventually, but he’s not ready yet.
Team: New York Knicks
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.9 blocks, 0.8 steals, 22.07 PER
After spending most of the season outside the top 20, Tyson Chandler deserves recognition beyond honorable mention for his transformative defensive impact on the New York Knicks. His per-game averages are excellent, but there aren't stats for how quickly he helps and recovers or how often he forces ball-handlers to turn away from the bucket when they drive the lane.
It's no coincidence that he won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season.
Offensively, Chandler is matching his league-leading 70.8 true-shooting percentage of a year ago, and he finishes at the rim as well as any big in the league. But again, Chandler's numbers don't adequately convey his worth.
His real value is subtle, and to be frank, if casual NBA fans weren't so obsessed with the cosmetic numbers like points and rebounds per game, he'd be viewed as a superstar.
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
Per-Game Stats: 19.1 points, 14.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.4 blocks, 0.8 steals, 18.21 PER
Love's raw numbers look awfully good, but if we delve a little deeper, it's clear he's not the same player he was a year ago. His shooting, for starters, has been awful. The broken hand he suffered during the preseason has clearly bothered him since his return, as he's been hitting at career-low rates from the field (36 percent) and the foul line (69 percent).
The lesson: never do knuckle push-ups.
He'll almost certainly round into form as the season progresses, and his Timberwolves are very much in the playoff mix despite horrible injury luck.
Don't be surprised if a healthy Love starts to climb the rankings in 2013.
Team: Golden State Warriors
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 20.0 points, 6.5 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 18.87 PER
One of just three players currently averaging at least 20 points, four rebounds and six assists per game, Curry has shaken off a slow-shooting start to help propel the dangerous Warriors to a stunning 21-10 record.
Curry's 55 three-point buckets in December leads the NBA (his teammate, Klay Thompson, is second with 52). What's even more amazing is that he's knocked down 48 percent of his triples in the month, despite drawing consistent blitzes on pick-and-rolls as defenses began to force the ball out of his hands.
Golden State faces a brutal January schedule that includes three matchups with the L.A. Clippers, so Curry and his club will be in for a real test in the new year. Based on the way he's played so far, we think he's up to the challenge.
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 blocks, 0.9 steals, 20.31 PER
The Grizzlies have leveled off as of late, winning just half of their 10 most recent games. But Randolph continues to put up good numbers with efficient percentages, so he hops up one spot (thanks to Paul Pierce falling off of the list).
Never labeled a great defender, Randolph has actually made the Grizzlies harder to score on when he's been on the floor. Combined with his well-documented offensive prowess makes Z-Bo one of the league's best bigs.
And we can't lie, he gets a little extra bump by doing all of this without ever jumping high enough to clear a business card.
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.5 blocks, 1.1 steals, 20.59 PER
Believe it or not, it was pretty tempting to drop Howard off of the list entirely. His numbers are the worst they've been since 2005. But as was the case with Tyson Chandler earlier, the real issue with Howard is subtler.
He's still painfully slow in his defensive rotations and he just isn't getting off the floor like he has in the past. As his back continues to heal, he should gradually rediscover the lateral quickness and bounce that made him such a defensive terror.
But he's not there yet.
Team: Miami Heat
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.3 blocks, 0.7 steals, 21.74 PER
Percentage-wise, Bosh is enjoying his best statistical season from the field (54 percent) and second-best from the free-throw line (83 percent); his per-game averages are only down because of a slight reduction in his minutes from last year.
In particular, Bosh has been a revelation in the mid-range area. His 60.6 percent accuracy on shots from 16-23 feet is the best in the NBA.
The Heat have had a couple of hiccups so far this season, but Bosh's play has remained consistent. In Miami's most recent back-to-back losses, Bosh put up two-game totals of 40 points and 25 rebounds. The Heat will continue to rely on Bosh's steady hand as they look to defend their title in 2013.
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 14.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.8 blocks, 0.9 steals, 20.18 PER
For a center, Gasol's scoring and rebounding numbers are somewhat underwhelming, but he's not your typical 5.
His ability to facilitate the Grizzlies' offense from the elbows is unmatched by any other big in the league, and it's not just his assists that make the difference. Gasol's swing-passing skills and high I.Q. make the Grizzlies' offense work; the team scores seven more points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
And although he's not the quickest guy in the world, his ability to anticipate and knowledge of positioning make him a better-than-average defender. Memphis allows about five fewer points per 100 possessions when he's anchoring its NBA-best defense.
Team: Golden State Warriors
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.2 blocks, 0.9 steals, 21.06 PER
As the biggest climber in this edition of the power rankings, David Lee continues to impress with his stat-stuffing ways. But unlike in years past, Lee's numbers are actually leading to wins this season.
Long criticized as an empty producer with an allergy to help defense, Lee has been the Warriors' most consistent offensive option. On D, he's still prone to some questionable and/or lazy help rotations, but he has at least improved that area of his game.
Lee is the NBA's only player currently averaging 20 and 10, but that's not where it ends. Watch any Warriors game and you'll leave convinced that Lee is the most skilled offensive big man in the league. He's totally ambidextrous, which allows him to flummox defenders on either block. And if you give him room, he'll bury 19-footers all night or cut your defense to ribbons with his passing ability.
The numbers are still there for Lee, but now, they actually mean something.
Team: Boston Celtics
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.6 points, 11.6 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 2.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 19.61 PER
Rondo didn't take the leap many hoped he would this year, and his reluctance to shoot the ball continues to be the only point of criticism in his game.
Interestingly, Rondo has his field-goal percentage back up to his career-high levels of a couple of years ago, but he's still taking only 11.4 shots per contest. Most Celtic fans would trade a few points from his field-goal percentage for another half-dozen attempts.
Despite his inexplicable lack of aggression, Rondo is clearly Boston's most important player. He is almost solely responsible for everything the Celtics do on offense, a fact made plain by Boston's total shift in style when he's off of the floor.
You get the sense that Rondo could move up this list, but only if he assumes a bigger scoring role in 2013.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 8.7 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 2.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 22.30 PER
The criticisms are the same as they've always been. Westbrook shoots too much, doesn't defer to Kevin Durant as often as he should and simply can't be counted on to make the right decision in critical moments.
All of those knocks are fair, and Westbrook has no excuse for his failure to rein in his wilder tendencies. But man, can this guy play.
He's as athletic as any point guard to ever lace up and there's absolutely no way to question his effort and desire. In fact, many of his mistakes are products of overexertion. He tries a little too hard sometimes.
Westbrook has the talent to crack the top five on this list, but until he brings up his 40 percent shooting and starts feeding KD a little more, he'll narrowly miss the top 10.
Team: San Antonio Spurs
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 19.2 points, 7.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks, 22.63 PER
It only took 11 NBA seasons, but Tony Parker has finally added that three-point shot everyone’s been bugging him about. Of course, he’s only played about a third of the season, but hey, 40 percent from long range is a major achievement for him.
Besides that little development, Parker’s stats remain as solid as ever, and he continues to function perfectly as Gregg Popovich’s penetrator and pace-pusher.
Like the rest of the Spurs, Parker’s production will eventually begin to tail off. But with the way both the player and team have continued to play at an elite level, that’ll probably happen sometime in 2025.
Team: Miami Heat
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.2 steals, 22.71 PER
Rumors of Dwyane Wade’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. While it’s true that Miami’s aging off-guard is picking his spots a little more this year, he’s still a devastatingly effective offensive player.
His 51 percent shooting from the field and 32 percent from long distance are both career highs.
To be fair, there are certainly signs that Wade is making adjustments as his athleticism wanes. His rebounds are down for the third straight year and his 5.9 free-throw attempts per game are the fewest he’s earned since his rookie year.
Every so often, there are moments when Wade shows his age; he can’t just elevate at will in the lane anymore, and he sometimes takes plays off on D. Overall, though, he’s still a top-10 player as we move into the new year.
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.6 blocks, 1.5 steals, 23.40 PER
We’re not purposely rewarding guys on this list for producing more in fewer minutes, although it might seem that way.
Blake Griffin is playing just 32 minutes per game, but he’s turning in career-best production. His turnovers are down, his free-throw percentage is up and he’s even rounding himself into a complete offensive player.
From 16-23 feet, Griffin is knocking down 41 percent of his shots. From 10-15 feet, he’s burying nearly 54 percent. Both of those figures are the best of his three-year career.
The highlights are still there, but what we’re seeing this season from Griffin is a quiet realization that he’s got to do more than dunk, despite what his commercials tell us.
Team: Houston Rockets
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 26.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 23.20 PER
Houston’s breakneck pace this season has inflated Harden’s counting numbers a bit, but his PER, which is a per-minute rating, is also at an all-time high.
More specifically, Harden has shown himself to be a master of the NBA’s most commonly used offensive set. According to Synergy, he ranks No. 1 in the league in points per possession when he’s the man conducting the pick-and-roll.
Now that’s the type of production you can build a team around.
Thanks almost entirely to Harden’s ascension from sixth man to alpha dog, the Rockets are currently in playoff position. Not bad for a club that was supposed to spend this year rebuilding in anticipation of a big free-agent shopping spree this summer.
Team: San Antonio Spurs
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.5 blocks, 0.9 steals, 25.06 PER
Based on PER, Duncan is having his best season since 2005. A cursory viewing of most Spurs games corroborates the numbers, too. Old Timmy is still moving well and he only seems to get smarter as the years roll by.
On brains alone, Duncan is still dominant defensively. He rotates with perfect timing and still knows how to position himself for shot-blocking opportunities.
It feels somehow condescending to refer to Duncan like he’s a player who’s “getting by” with tricks and smarts. That’s true, but it undersells the fact that he’s still just a really good basketball player. He doesn’t run as fast or jump as high as he did in his MVP form, but the guy is still skilled enough to be the cornerstone of a championship-caliber team.
Which is exactly what he is.
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 30.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, 25.70 PER
It’s really too bad Kobe Bryant has been playing so well amid the Lakers’ fitful start. You know, because it’s always fun to blame the NBA’s most noteworthy chucker for ignoring his teammates and hoisting up too many tough shots.
Unfortunately for anyone hoping to find some Kobe bashing in this space, No. 24 has just been too darn good to criticize.
Sorry to disappoint.
He’s still scoring at a healthy clip, but he’s doing it efficiently. More than that, Bryant has managed to keep his temper in check during exhaustive and repetitive questioning about his team’s struggles. Past versions of Kobe would have been driven to the edge of sanity by now, but aside from the occasional death stare (which I’ll admit I reference way too often), Kobe’s been shockingly well-behaved.
All of that stuff aside, Bryant is doing historic things on the court. No player his age has ever averaged more than 30 points per game.
Team: New York Knicks
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 28.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.6 blocks, 1.0 steals, 25.87 PER
Maybe Carmelo’s doing all those things, but the real reason for his (and the Knicks’) success this year has been simple: He’s doing the same things he’s always done, only better.
He’s nowhere close to his career highs in assists or rebounds, but he’s scoring more points than he ever has. The only reason for that difference is an improved field-goal and three-point percentage.
Sure, Melo’s working out of the post more and he has shown better effort on defense. But let’s get something straight: He’s a scorer. The guy’s shooting more threes than he ever has and is putting up nearly 21 shots per 36 minutes played.
This is no knock on Anthony. He’s been utterly spectacular this year. But the NBA is a make-or-miss league, and Melo’s been great because he’s making shots—not because he’s undergone some sort of personality overhaul.
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 9.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 2.6 steals, 26.23 PER
Maybe there’s been a point guard in history who has controlled every aspect of the game as well as Chris Paul, but it’s hard to believe anyone’s ever done it better.
CP3 is a floor general in the truest sense. He conducts his own players while manipulating his opponents. Scoring comes easy to Paul, who can get to any spot he wants on the floor, but he rarely chooses to shoot until the fourth quarter.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “two-for-one,” when teams hurriedly toss up a shot with something like 35 seconds left on the clock to ensure the period’s final possession. Pay close attention to Paul next time you watch and you’ll almost certainly see him employ the nearly unheard-of “three-for-two.”
Seriously, he’s in such control of game that he thinks two possessions ahead.
When you’re the most critical component of the best team in the NBA, the only way you lose out on the top spot in any set of rankings is if there happen to be two superhuman mega-talents ahead of you.
Oh, and also if you let Justin Bieber babysit your kid. That’s going to hurt your stock, too.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 28.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.4 blocks, 1.5 steals, 28.20 PER
When you’re clearly the league’s second-best player and you make monstrous improvements to your game, you’d certainly expect to overtake whoever’s occupying that No. 1 spot.
Unfortunately, Kevin, you’re stuck at No. 2 despite putting even more distance between yourself and the rest of the pack.
Seriously, KD is having an unreal season. He’s still on pace to join the exclusive 50-40-90 club and his team is actually ahead of last year’s clip in the win department. From a pure scoring perspective, nobody in recent memory has even been close to Durant. In fact, he’s such a lethal offensive weapon that the best criticism anyone could make about him is that he should be shooting more.
Scoring aside, there are two other areas we can’t neglect in our gush-fest about Durant.
First, his on-and-off-court splits are just silly. When he’s on the floor, OKC scores nearly eight more points per 100 possessions than when he’s on the bench. And defensively, the Thunder are five points per 100 possessions stingier with KD on the floor.
That’s a net of 13 points per 100 possessions, which is completely ridiculous.
Second, on an individual basis, Durant holds opposing small forwards to a PER of 7.9. So, apparently, the game’s greatest scorer is also clamping down on defense.
The dude at No. 1 must be pretty good.
Team: Miami Heat
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 25.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 0.9 blocks, 1.6 steals, 29.90 PER
LeBron James is not good. He is great.
Armed with the best combination of size and skill in NBA history, the reigning MVP is without equal on a basketball court. He scores efficiently, makes passes a man his size has no business making and morphs into an angry freight train on the break.
Freight trains get angry, right?
Anyway, go ahead and moan about how boring and repetitive it is that LeBron always occupies the top spot in everyone’s player rankings. The reality is that there’s no logical rebuttal for his position here. The statistics support his primacy, and the eye test only helps his case.
When a player is as once-in-a-lifetime spectacular as James is, it’s okay to let the praise flow. There’s no reason to hate the guy.
Unless you’re from Cleveland, in which case, you’re entitled to check reason at the door.