Last week, yours truly looked at how the NBA's 10 biggest superstars have fared so far through the 2012-13 season. This time around, I'll once again be examining where the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant stack up against one another, but with a bit of a twist.
Which is to say, I'll be ranking them in ascending order, from 10th to first.
There will be no extensive mention of players like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, who are now superstars more in name than in game on account of age, injuries and limited playing time. Also, young guns like James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry, who've done plenty to announce themselves this season, will have to wait until they've firmly established themselves as individual powerhouses with postseason prowess.
Unlike the first edition, Rajon Rondo will not be included. There's only so much superstardom that the Boston Celtics stalwart can emanate in street clothes on the end of the bench for the rest of the season on account of an ACL tear.
But who will replace him among the Association's top-10 talents? And where do the rest rank in relation to one another?
In many ways, Dwight Howard has slipped dangerously close to the category of Superstars-By-Reputation. He's scoring and rebounding less and playing fewer minutes than he has since his rookie season. His free-throw accuracy has dipped back below the 50 percent mark. He's dominated only in spurts for a Los Angeles Lakers squad that only now seems to be getting its act together.
However you choose to explain the decline—a slow recovery from back surgery, trouble adjusting to his new digs in L.A., misuse by the Lakers coaching staff, a lack of effort, etc.—the fact remains that he's hardly performed like the guy who was widely considered the second-best player in basketball just two or three years ago.
Still, Howard has shown that he can impact games (if not overtake them entirely) on occasion, even when the box score doesn't necessarily bear that out. He's not leaping with the same grace, power and speed as before, but he remains a powerful defensive deterrent nonetheless. According to NBA.com, the Lakers allow nearly six points fewer per 100 possessions when Dwight's on the court.
And, as far as conventional, easily-digested stats are concerned, Howard, for all his shortcomings, still leads the league in rebounds per game (12.0) and is third in double-doubles with 24.
Grade: C (75 Percent)
It's tough to tell exactly where Dwyane Wade fits among the NBA's elite these days.
On the one hand, he's clearly not the same dominant, death-defying force he once was (at least not consistently). He's scored 15 points or fewer 11 times this season, which isn't all that surprising considering he's scoring (20.4 points) and shooting (15.3 attempts) less than he has since his rookie season.
On the other hand, he's shown a considerable capacity to summon the D-Wade of old to replace the old D-Wade. He's averaging nearly 20-5-5 with 1.5 steals while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and ranks ninth in Player Efficiency Rating (PER).
Also, he and LeBron James still do stuff like that seen in the clip above quite a bit.
So long as the Miami Heat remain relevant and Wade plays a significant part in that, he'll more than likely stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the league's superstars.
Grade: B- (81 Percent)
Blake Griffin's numbers have been down considerably this season, though the apparent "decline" isn't without explanation.
He dealt with elbow and knee issues early on, and is playing significantly fewer minutes per game (32.4) than he did through his first two campaigns since the Clippers' second unit has been so amazingly effective. On a per-36-minute basis, Griffin's still scoring north of 20 points and pulling down nearly 9.5 rebounds.
More importantly, Griffin has done well to expand his game beyond dunking and other aerial acrobatics. He's averaging a career-best 3.7 assists, thanks in part to 19 helpers tallied during a weekend back-to-back against the Portland Trail Blazers. His 1.5 steals per game place him among the top 25 in that category, on par with Ty Lawson and just ahead of the likes of Kobe Bryant, Nicolas Batum and Jrue Holiday.
To be sure, the free-throw line, from which he's shooting 64.8 percent, still remains somewhat problematic, and he's getting to the stripe less frequently than he ever has.
On the whole, though, Griffin's game is growing. He's defending better, handling the ball and dishing to his teammates while still making time for rebounding, scoring and filling highlight reels.
Oh, and the Clips are 33-13...so there's that.
Grade: B (84 Percent)
Russell Westbrook is probably the closest thing there is to Blake Griffin in guard form. He leaps tall buildings in a single bound, plays with a power rarely seen in a player at any position, and often tends to swing between breathtakingly awesome and maddeningly reckless with his play.
By and large, though, Good Russ owns a decisive edge over Bad Russ so far this season. His scoring is down only slightly (to 22.5 points, from 23.6 in 2011-12), but his assist totals are way up, to a career-high 8.4 per game. He's also rebounding more (5.4) and stealing more (1.9) than he ever has before and is turning the ball over at a far lower rate than he ever has—on 13.8 percent of his possessions, per Basketball Reference.
Not that Bad Russ hasn't reared his ugly head from time to time. His defense has bordered on lackadaisical, as his "freelancing" has increased while his shooting percentages have declined considerably, particularly from beyond 16 feet (per Hoopdata).
Consistency has never been Westbrook's specialty, but the Thunder could certainly use some from him if they're to continue to roll through the Western Conference.
Grade: B (86 Percent)
The best player on the team with the best record in the NBA certainly deserves a spot on this list, and not just because of those two facts. No, Tony Parker is a superstar unto himself, even if the mere mention of his name doesn't invoke the same sort of revelry that often follows the likes of LeBron and Kobe.
The five-time All-Star and three-time champion is averaging 20.1 points on 52.7 percent shooting from the field (38.5 percent from three, 81.2 percent from the line) with 3.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists and a relatively modest 2.5 turnovers. Parker's free-throw percentage is the only stat from among all those that would stand as a career-high if it held up.
On the whole, though, this may stand as Parker's finest season to date. He's doing everything on the floor just about as well as he ever has and playing with the same tremendous quickness as always, despite nearing his 31st birthday in May.
As great as Tim Duncan has been in 2012-13 after (apparently) discovering the Fountain of Youth, Tony Parker is the one player who truly makes the San Antonio Spurs go. And, at 36-11, it would appear as though he's doing a fantastic job.
Grade: B+ (89 Percent)
There's something strange going on with Kobe Bryant right now, and we probably won't know for at least another few weeks if it's a legitimate shift. But, for now, it makes for fascinating viewing.
I'm referring, of course, to Kobe's recent turn as point guard of the Los Angeles Lakers. The Black Mamba turned in back-to-back 14-assist performances (and fallen one rebound shy of a triple-double in each) against the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Which is remarkable, and not just because of Bryant's long-standing (and largely misguided) reputation as a free-wheeling gunner who creates shots for himself and nobody else. What's more mind-boggling is the fact that he's done this while playing with Steve Nash...who just so happens to be one of the best point guards ever!
In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN Stats & Info), only once in his previous 12 seasons had Nash ever shared a locker room with someone who registered 14 assists.
That player? Boris Diaw, during the Phoenix Suns' 161-157 overtime win against the then-New Jersey Nets in 2006.
The question now is, can Kobe keep this up? Will he continue to trust his teammates and serve as a facilitator to get the Lakers back on the straight-and-narrow? Or will he relapse into his old ways of shooting to his heart's content, for better or worse?
If he does and LA continues to win, you can bet he'll find his way up this list, even as he falls further behind Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony in the scoring race.
Grade: A- (92 Percent)
The recent rut into which the Clippers have fallen has only solidified Chris Paul's case as a legitimate MVP candidate. A 96-83 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday moved the Clips to 4-3 on the season sans CP3, thereby ending what had been a three-game skid.
To be sure, Paul's own productivity speaks for itself. He's on track for his fifth steals title in six seasons with 2.6 per game, and figures to pick up his third assist crown now that Rajon Rondo is done for the season. At present, Paul's 9.7 dimes per night place him second behind Rondo's 11.1.
His totals in shooting (12.2 attempts) and scoring (16.6 points) are down, though that's as much a function of LA's incredible depth as anything else. At present, CP3 is averaging the fewest minutes (33.5) of his entire career, thanks in no small part to the tremendous play of backup Eric Bledsoe.
Surely, it's not because Paul has been any less effective. According to NBA.com, the Clips are 4.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than they are without him.
Which makes sense, considering how run-of-the-mill they've been without him, for the most part. At this point, the Clips can only hope that the bone bruise in Paul's right kneecap heals up before they fall too far behind the Spurs and the Thunder in the race for the top spot in the West.
Grade: A (94 Percent)
Never has the above song rung truer than it has for Carmelo Anthony this season, especially after his last outing. Anthony nailed a career-high nine threes (in 12 attempts) as part of a 42-point explosion against the ailing Atlanta Hawks Sunday night.
Better yet, he converted a three-point play with 12 seconds remaining to lift the New York Knicks to the 106-104 win.
But even that display of perimeter fireworks wasn't entirely out of character for Carmelo in 2012-13. He's averaging more three-point makes (2.8) and attempts (6.6) and hitting them at a higher rate (42 percent) than ever before. His current scoring average (29.4 points) would also mark a new career-high, and currently leaves him just a fraction of a point behind Kevin Durant for the NBA lead.
Don't let 'Melo's plummeting assist numbers fool you, though. He's done a fantastic job of swinging the ball out to and around the perimeter. If one were to track hockey assists (i.e. passes that lead to passes that lead to scores) in the NBA, Anthony would most likely rank at or near the top of the heap.
As it stands, his Knicks are in second place in the Eastern Conference, just a game-and-a-half back of the Heat, and are finally rounding into form now that Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert have returned from injury.
Grade: A (96 Percent)
Some folks out there have suggested that Kevin Durant should be the MVP this season, even though he's not necessarily the best player in the NBA overall.
As ridiculous as the premise may sound at first, the argument makes some sense. The Thunder sport a better record than LeBron James' Miami Heat against tougher competition, despite trading reigning Sixth Man of the Year and current All-Star James Harden to the Houston Rockets in the preseason.
Durant has been the biggest catalyst behind that success. He's once again leading the league in scoring, at 29.6 points per game, despite taking fewer shots and using up fewer possessions than he has in several years.
It certainly helps Durant's case in this regard that he's enjoying one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history (per Grantland's Zach Lowe). His shooting percentages—.517 from the field, .417 from three, .912 from the free-throw line—aren't just career-highs; they're also good enough to make him just the eighth member of the exclusive 50-40-90 Club in NBA history.
His 7.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks ain't bad, either.
If LeBron is No. 1 among basketball players on planet Earth today, then Durant is no worse than No. 2, and is probably much closer to 1A.
Grade: A+ (102 Percent)
Forget, for a moment, that LeBron James is scoring the fewest points (26.6) and attempting the fewest shots (18.8) since his rookie season.
LeBron's still fourth in the NBA in scoring, but also ranks 10th in field-goal percentage (a career-best .547), 10th in assists (7.1) and 13th in steals (1.7). In addition, James is pulling down more rebounds (8.3), shooting a higher percentage from three-point range (.394) and turning the ball over less (2.8) than at any point in his 10-year pro career.
It's no surprise, then, that James is on pace to lead the league in PER for the sixth consecutive season. Only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have ever pulled off such a lengthy stunt on the rest of the NBA (per Basketball Reference).
This is all to say nothing of LeBron's unique brilliance in defending all five positions on the floor. Nor does it acknowledge the way in which he's single-handedly carried the Heat back to the top of the Eastern Conference, despite seasons of decline from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and a bench that remains among the league's least productive, even with the addition of Ray Allen.
Don't be surprised, then, if James comes away with his fourth MVP trophy in five seasons once this one's been wrapped.
Grade: A+ (104 Percent)