Ranking the Top 20 NBA Superstars Entering 2013-14 Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 24, 2013

Ranking the Top 20 NBA Superstars Entering 2013-14 Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    We haven't yet known the joy of a 2013-14 regular-season game, but that's OK. We still have plenty of information on which to base the first edition of this year's NBA superstar rankings.

    For now, we'll use a combination of factors to place the league's best 20 players in order. Last year's performance will be a huge determinant, but preseason play and a little bit of guesswork about the future will be factors as well.

    A preliminary note: Injured players are ineligible for these rankings. Missing a game or two with a sprained ankle won't necessarily disqualify anyone, but a prolonged absence will. If a guy's not playing, it's hard to make any judgments on his game.

    Also, art and science are going to collide here. Because the term "superstar" is inherently ambiguous, there's going to be some wiggle room in the rankings. Make no mistake, though; the numbers are going to matter in a major way.

    Team context, recent performance and intangibles will also determine which superstar deserves recognition as the NBA's best and which ones fill in the spots behind him.

    Enough with the rules. Let's rank!

Missing the Cut

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    Down and Out

    Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams, Joakim Noah, Andrew Bynum and Russell Westbrook are all currently out of action, which removes them from consideration here. Sorry, fellas. Get well soon.

     

    Honorable Mention

    Just to alleviate any suspense, the following stars will not appear in the top 20 this week: John Wall, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol, Brook Lopez, Josh Smith and Larry Sanders.

    Each of these guys will likely feature in the rankings at some point this season, but they're on the outside looking in for now.

20. Dirk Nowitzki

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Dallas Mavericks

    Position: PF

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 17.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.7 blocks, 19.8 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Dirk Nowitzki checks in at No. 20 on the strength of last year's impressive post-All-Star game numbers—which included 50.5 percent shooting from the field and a 43 percent accuracy rate from long range—and his vintage preseason form.

    The Diggler clearly put in some work over the summer, and he's looking as mobile and agile as he has in years. He already has a pair of 20-plus point efforts in the exhibition season and has also felt feisty enough to incur a flagrant foul for bashing Omri Casspi in the head.

    Hey, at least he got back on defense.

    At 35, it's going to be tough for Nowitzki to make it through the grind of a full season. But, it's crazy to exclude him from this list if he's healthy.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Nowitzki would have ranked a few spots higher if he'd kept his phenomenally awful .500 beard from last season. 

19. Roy Hibbert

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    Team: Indiana Pacers

    Position: C

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.6 blocks, 17.3 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Here, we have our first indicator that defense actually matters in these rankings. Eventually, we'll start using the term "superstar" to describe guys who are dominant on D but only so-so as offensive players. Consider this ranking a plea for that change to happen sooner than later.

    Hibbert belongs here, especially after he made such a massive impact in last year's playoffs. He was integral in dispatching the New York Knicks and, then, nearly helped the Pacers topple the Miami Heat. Not only that, but Indy's big man averaged 17 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and shot 51 percent in the postseason.

    Expect him to post numbers similar to those during the 2013-14 campaign while continuing to dominate the lane on defense.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Hibbert also earns bonus points for giving us a first-person perspective of what it's like to be a giant human being. Thanks, Google Glass!

18. Anthony Davis

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Position: PF

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.8 blocks, 21.7 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    If the only consideration in these rankings were last year's performance, it'd be tough to make a case for Anthony Davis' position here. Yes, his rate stats were all excellent, including that 21.7 PER—good enough to rank 14th in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference.com—and the sterling field-goal percentage of 51.6 percent.

    But the Brow only played 28.8 minutes per night and missed more than 20 percent of his team's games because of injury. Overall, he didn't play enough to make his efficiency count as much as it could have.

    Fortunately, we get to consider more than last year's numbers.

    Davis is a megastar waiting to happen. Still just 20 years old and blessed with the skill to make a major impact on both ends, this guy is going to explode in 2013-14. He's been terrific lately, averaging 22.2 points, seven rebounds and two blocks on 53 percent shooting over his last five preseason games, per ESPN.

    Don't be surprised if he climbs the superstar ladder in a hurry.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Extra points awarded because the new Pelican mascot makes Davis seem at least 17 percent more intimidating than he was as a Hornet. Pelicans are all business, you guys.

17. Al Horford

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    Team: Atlanta Hawks

    Position: PF/C

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks, 19.8 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Al Horford needs a little love. Perhaps the league's most underappreciated superstar, the Hawks' 27-year-old big man has been a model of consistency. His PER has been between 19.0 and 20.7 in each of the past four seasons, and he hasn't shot below 52 percent from the field since his rookie year in 2007-08, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    What does this guy need to do to get the recognition he deserves?

    This year, he'll get a chance to prove he can carry the Hawks without Josh Smith around, which means there's potential here for a career season.

    Go get 'em, Al.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Horford missed the Hawks' final preseason game because of a bad hamstring. If it causes him to miss much regular-season time, he might not be in this spot for long.

16. Kevin Love

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    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Position: PF

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 18.3 points, 14 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, 17.9 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Let's all just agree that last season never happened for Kevin Love. Sure, the counting numbers look just fine, but this is a guy who had been making a real mark for himself as one of the more dangerous outside-shooting bigs in the league until last year.

    After breaking his hand twice, Love managed to hit just 35.2 percent of his shots from the field and 21.7 percent of his long-range attempts.

    He's in great shape and may even be toying with the idea of adding defense to his game, as the photo above indicates.

    Love is in for a major bounce-back this season.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Demerits awarded for having a really unconvincing old-man voice in Kyrie Irving's "Uncle Drew" ads.

15. Blake Griffin

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PF

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 18 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 22.4 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Between the highlight jams, the ubiquitous commercials and the top-flight offensive production, Blake Griffin has everything a superstar needs on his resume. Well, almost everything.

    See, the Los Angeles Clippers' high-flying forward has a bit of an image problem among his peers. He's regarded as having a bit more style than substance, probably owing to his flopping tendency and general aversion to lockdown defense.

    Doc Rivers is on board as a mentor now, though, so I'm anticipating a positive change in Griffin's approach to dirty work. Soon enough, he'll nail down the little things that have been absent from his game to this point. When he does, a top-10 position in these rankings will be in the cards.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Small bonus awarded for making sleeved jerseys look kind of cool.

14. Dwyane Wade

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Position: SG

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 21.2 points, 5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.8 blocks, 24.0 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Dwyane Wade's up-and-down postseason performance makes it easy to forget how great he was during the 2012-13 regular season. One of just four players to average at least 20 points, five boards and five assists per game last year, Wade was in vintage form throughout the regular season.

    The 10-year veteran avoided surgery on his troublesome knees this past summer, which is a good sign for his health this year. If the Heat opt to reduce his minutes in an effort to preserve him for the postseason, his production could decline a bit. But he might also play in more than the 69 games he managed last year, which would offset his per-game minute reduction.

    Wade's not done yet, folks.

     

    Out of Bounds

    I'm tempted to drop D-Wade a few spots in the rankings for his "feud" with Kevin Durant, which reeks of being a publicity grab. Maybe next week.

13. Tim Duncan

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Position: PF/C

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.7 blocks, 24.4 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    OK, seriously, what's going on with Tim Duncan? Look at that guy! You're telling me that photo, taken during an Oct. 17 preseason game against the Hawks, depicts a 37-year-old man? Somehow, Duncan is getting younger as he enters his 17th season.

    Whatever youth serum he's taking has also preserved his productivity. Last year, Timmy averaged a career-best 3.2 blocks per 36 minutes, blowing away his career average of 2.3. Leaner and as active as ever, the Spurs' veteran big man played both ends at a superstar level.

    And proving that old dogs can learn new tricks, Duncan even shot a career-high 81.7 percent from the foul line.

    What's next? A three-point shot?

    Duncan will hover around the top-10 spots here all season long. It's been that way for nearly two decades, and he's done nothing to warrant a change.

     

    Out of Bounds: In their annual survey, NBA general managers named Duncan the league's best leader, which earns him extra points.

12. Kyrie Irving

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    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Position: PG

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 22.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 21.4 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    We move up one spot and shave off 16 years from the allegedly 37-year-old Duncan to the 21-year-old Kyrie Irving. Consider youth served.

    Irving is at the center of a Cavs team that fancies itself a legitimate playoff threat, and he'll be the key reason for their ultimate success or failure. He spent the offseason bulking up and recommitting to the defensive end, both necessary additions to his already developed offensive game.

    Superstars perform when it matters, and Irving has shown a knack for dominating All-Star games and three-point contests. This year, he'll be looking to solidify his status by making a mark in the postseason.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Extra points awarded for having a much more convincing old-man voice than Kevin Love.

11. Carmelo Anthony

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    Team: New York Knicks

    Position: SF/PF

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 28.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 24.8 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Carmelo Anthony put together what might have been his best season in 2012-13. The Knicks featured him as a power forward in their highly effective small-ball units, and 'Melo took advantage of overmatched bigs on his way to a scoring title.

    If Anthony wants to move up this list, he'll have to show the kind of defensive tenacity and willingness to move the ball that he displayed during the Knicks' impressive early-season run last year. After the All-Star Break, his assist rate dipped, and his defensive rating increased from 102.8 to 107.3, per NBA.com.

    But hey, 'Melo is still basically impossible to guard and remains the biggest star in the league's biggest market. That's enough to warrant the No. 11 spot, right?

     

    Out of Bounds

    Anthony gets a few (meaningless) extra points here because of how obvious it is that the Knicks are doing everything in their power to appease him in hopes that he'll stick around as a free agent next summer. A panic trade for Andrea Bargnani and a hasty swap in the general manager's office were both designed to show Anthony that New York is the place for him.

    'Melo has some serious power.

10. Paul George

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    Team: Indiana Pacers

    Position: SF

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 16.8 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Paul George is a solid case study in how even some of the most widely accepted advanced NBA metrics sometimes fail to paint a clear picture. With a PER of just 16.8, George grades out as a slightly above-average player but little more.

    Well, anyone who watched him break out during last year's playoffs knows that he's far better than that.

    And if defense counts for anything, George, who ranks among the league's top-three or -four best perimeter stoppers, is more than deserving of his spot in the top 10 here.

    Freshly maxed out on a five-year contract and still just 23 years old, George still has a ton of room to get better. If he shores up his shaky perimeter shooting, cuts down on his turnovers and finishes at the rim a bit more consistently, we could be looking at a top-five superstar in the very near future.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Part of the reason George ranks so high is because he has a little extra incentive to ball out this year. If he makes it onto the All-NBA team, it'll be his second such honor, which will qualify him for an extra $3 million per season over the life of his new max extension. Money is a motivator, folks. 

9. Tony Parker

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Position: PG

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 20.3 points, 3 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks, 23.0 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Tony Parker has the numbers, the rings and the league-wide respect that few others can match. But what truly separates the 30-year-old veteran from his peers is his singular importance to his team's success.

    Without Parker penetrating, expertly manipulating picks and putting relentless pressure on the defense, San Antonio's precision offense simply doesn't work as effectively.

    The Spurs rely on the chaos Parker creates to get their trademarked ball-movement humming.

    There are plenty of better defenders out there, but Parker has managed to serve as the hub of the NBA's most consistently successful franchise for over a decade. That's good enough for No. 9 here, wouldn't you say?

     

    Out of Bounds

    TP earns points for having a signature move: the league's smoothest, most tear-droppy floater. That thing helps keep Parker among the NBA's leaders in points in the paint every year and probably belongs in a museum somewhere.

8. Stephen Curry

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: PG

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 22.9 points, 4 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 21.3 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Let's run down Curry's superstar resume:

    NBA single-season record 272 three-pointers? Check.

    54-point outburst at Madison Square Garden? Check.

    22-point third quarter against the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of the Warriors' first-round series upset? Check.

    You get the idea.

    Curry is arguably the NBA's best perimeter shooter, a crafty passer and one of the league's most marketable stars. He's got it all. Oh, and he even threw down a dunk in the Dubs' first preseason game, proving that his troublesome ankle is feeling just fine.

    Get ready for another monster season from Steph.

     

    Out of Bounds: Extra points for the sheer boldness of jumping from Nike to Under Armour just weeks before the season begins. Those points are immediately cancelled out, though, because let's face it: Under Armour makes some butt-ugly kicks.

7. Dwight Howard

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: C

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 2.5 blocks, 19.4 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Clearly, this isn't a popularity contest. If it were, Dwight Howard would struggle to crack the top 50 after the two-year run of clownish behavior he's put together.

    If we brush aside the nonsense, though, we get a guy who was probably the NBA's second-best player as recently as 2011. Howard remains the most physically gifted center in the game, and assuming he's healthy, he'll be right back on the short list of the league's most dominant defenders.

    Surrounded by an excellent supporting cast in Houston and lucky enough to have Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon on staff as low-post tutors, Howard couldn't possibly ask for a better situation. If he shuts up, grows up and just plays, he'll threaten the top five in no time.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Maybe this isn't important, but Howard had a nice laugh when he banked in a free throw against the Dallas Mavericks Oct. 21, and it rubbed me the wrong way. Hey Dwight, you're supposed to be taking things seriously now.

    And by the way, nobody thinks your comedy of errors at the foul line is funny anymore. One demerit issued.

6. James Harden

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: SG

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 23.0 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Anybody else think the Oklahoma City Thunder would like a do-over on the James Harden trade?

    In his first year as a starter, the Beard blew up.

    Harden instantly became the NBA's most terrifying force in the open floor, parlaying his herky-jerky, Eurostep-heavy style into tons of layups and a boatload of free-throw attempts. With a full head of steam, nobody was tougher on retreating defenders than the Rockets shooting guard.

    To be fair, Harden is a player with weaknesses, too. He led the league with 295 turnovers last year and certainly didn't make a name for himself as a defender, but both of those issues owed at least partly to Houston's fast pace and general lack of concern with getting stops.

    This year, he'll have a new big man in the middle, even more firepower around him and an opportunity to build on one of the most impressive breakout seasons in recent memory. Get ready for liftoff.

     

    Out of Bounds

    1,000,000 extra points for the beard, obviously.

5. Marc Gasol

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    Team: Memphis Grizzlies

    Position: C

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.7 blocks, 19.5 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Until his defensive greatness got a little validation by way of the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year Award, it might have been controversial to slot the Memphis Grizzlies center this high in the rankings. The trophy was well-deserved, as Marc Gasol's brilliant economy of motion, clairvoyant positioning and superhuman understanding of angles made him a quiet terror on D.

    And ask yourself this: If Gasol's defense is better than anyone's and his offensive contributions—which include serving as the facilitator for Memphis' offense—are well-above average, doesn't that make him a superstar?

    Anthony checked in at No. 11 as the league's leading scorer, and his defense is far less valuable than Gasol's offense. A basketball court has two ends, and because Gasol is the league's best on one of them and darn good on the other, he's worthy of his position here.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Somehow, Gasol didn't make the All-Star team last year. Extra apology points awarded on behalf of the voters.

4. Derrick Rose

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Position: PG

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: N/A 

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Maybe you heard something about Derrick Rose losing the entire 2012-13 season to injury. Alternatively, maybe you've been in a coma for the past 18 months.

    For those in the latter category, Rose won the MVP in his last fully healthy season and led the Chicago Bulls to more wins than any other NBA team from 2010-2012. In short, he used to be really good at basketball.

    Based on the way he's looked in Chicago's preseason games, he still is.

    Over his five most recent exhibition games, Rose has gotten to the line 54 times and drilled 12 triples in 23 attempts, per ESPN. He says his vertical leap has increased by five inches, and all indications are that he's even more aggressive than he used to be.

    The only question now is how much higher D-Rose is going to climb on this list.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Slight demerits for saying the Pacers weren't really a rival to the Bulls. One of the biggest changes in the league while Rose was recovering last year was that Indy ascended into the league's elite. Give a little credit where it's due, D-Rose.

3. Chris Paul

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PG

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 16.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 26.4 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Would you believe that Chris Paul's 26.4 PER last season was just the fourth-highest of his career? Check out Basketball-Reference.com if you need a refresher.

    The fact that CP3 was widely regarded as the league's third-best player in a season when he wasn't quite at his best is truly impressive. With Doc Rivers on the bench and more shooting around him than ever, there's a good chance that Paul is on the cusp of a career year.

    He'll get a major push from Rose for honors as the league's best point guard, and maybe that competition will be as big a motivating factor as anything else. The Clips will go as far as Paul can take them this year, and if they start hot, CP3 will warrant consideration for the No. 2 spot here.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Does anybody else think it's weird that Chris Paul's parents weren't particularly bothered by the disappearance of twin brother Cliff? Did they even look for him before taking an infant Chris home from the hospital? Demerits for an implausible commercial premise.

2. Kevin Durant

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: SF

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.4 steals 1.3 blocks, 28.3 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Kevin Durant made the leap last year, posting a career-high in assists per game, joining the elusive 50-40-90 club and posting his best defensive rating ever, per Basketball-Reference.com. Building on that massive year, KD has been flashing an even more evolved game during preseason play.

    He's been hitting threes left and right, which isn't unusual, but has also been functioning as a distributor with impressive success. He dished out 12 dimes against the Philadelphia 76ers Oct. 8, and Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has said he'll use KD as a facilitator more than ever this year.

    Durant was flat-out awesome last season, but he'll have to take his game up another few notches if he hopes to ever unseat the one man who tops him in these rankings.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Major demerits for sending Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder free shoes. Nice gesture, but do you really want to be friends with that guy, KD?

1. LeBron James

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Position: SF/PF

    2012-13 Per Game Stats: 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 31.6 PER

    Previous Rank: N/A

     

    Surprised?

    All LeBron James did last year was lead the league in PER for the sixth consecutive season, drill a ridiculous 56.5 percent of his shots from the field and win his fourth MVP award. Oh, and he's probably the best wing-defender in the league now, too.

    So, there's that.

    Just for the sake of argument, it'd be nice to try to find reasons to move LBJ out of the No. 1 spot. But, there's just no defensible way to criticize him. This is his ranking to lose, and unless Durant, Paul or Rose make a significant leap, it's tough to see James slipping.

     

    Out of Bounds

    Additional credit awarded for defending Ray Allen against the criticisms of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. LBJ 1, hypocrisy 0.