Ranking Top 5 NBA Players at Every Position at Quarter-Season Mark
There's plenty of time left in the entertaining 2013-14 season for elite players to distance themselves from the pack (cough Dwight Howard cough) or rise up into their rightful places (cough Kobe Bryant cough), but a quarter of the season has already come and gone.
And with that 25 percent, the rankings at each position have undergone some seismic shifts.
They've changed enough since the last edition, but think back on these rankings from the first week of the season. There's at least one new player at every position, and much of the order has been completely shaken up.
But rather than go over more overarching generalizations, allow me to focus briefly on the Portland Trail Blazers. After all, the leaders of the Western Conference are making player-ranking history here.
For the first time, a team has all five starters represented. Two members of Rip City are in the top five, and the other three starters can all be found in the honorable mentions of their respective positions.
How's that for impressive?
Note: All stats come from ESPN.com and are accurate as of Dec. 10.
Point Guard No. 5: Damian Lillard (Previous Ranking: No. 5)
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.3 blocks, 0.7 steals, 20.08 PER
Damian Lillard has to be one of the most confident players in the NBA. That was perfectly clear during his late-game three-point barrage against the Dallas Mavericks, including the how-in-the-world-did-he-make-that double-clutch to tie the game.
But as his professional career progresses, he has become more than just a confident point guard. He's quickly developing into one of the game's best floor generals thanks to his precocious scoring talents.
Lately, Lillard is taking care of the ball better than ever before, and he's doing so while shooting the ball with efficiency. That 44.4 percent shooting over his last five games might not look too great, but it's a whole lot better when paired with his 48.4 percent beyond the arc.
Last year's Rookie of the Year is no flash in the pan.
Point Guard No. 4: Russell Westbrook (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 0.1 blocks, 1.9 steals, 19.79 PER
Once I felt I was able to play and do what I was able to do, I just go play. I don't really think about whether I can make this move or spin or jump. I just do it. Once I figured out my knee was healthy and I was good, I didn't worry about it anymore.
That knee is no longer holding Westbrook back, and he's once more becoming the incredibly dynamic point guard we'd come to know and love argue about. Over his last five games, Westbrook is averaging 21.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists, and he's shooting 47.6 percent from the field.
After a 26-point, 13-dime outing against the Indiana Pacers, who boast the best defense in basketball, it's abundantly clear that Westbrook is elite again.
Point Guard No. 3: Tony Parker (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: San Antonio Spurs
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 17.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 0.1 blocks, 0.4 steals, 20.17 PER
Even though he has a nice cushion built up, Tony Parker is slowly falling down the ranks. It's been a while since his last outburst (the 27 points and eight assists in a loss to the Houston Rockets don't quite count), and he's only putting up good, not great, stats.
In November, Parker averaged 18.7 points and 6.1 assists per game while shooting a scorching 54.2 percent from the field. But he slowed down as the month progressed, and his first two games of December haven't reached those levels.
Against the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks, the talented point guard averaged 14 points and 4.5 assists, shooting 52 percent from the field.
Good. Not great.
Point Guard No. 2: Stephen Curry (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Team: Golden State Warriors
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 23.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.7 steals, 24.51 PER
Stephen Curry's resume is by no means devoid of outbursts.
Over his past five games, he's averaged 30.0 points, 3.6 rebounds and 9.8 assists per game. Against the Charlotte Bobcats—admittedly in a losing effort—he exploded for 43 points, six rebounds and nine dimes, and he even added two rejections for good measure.
There isn't a point guard in the league with more one-game upside than Curry. Due to his unique combination of unmatched perimeter shooting and incredible passing, he can turn into an offensive juggernaut in the blink of an eye.
Lately, a lot of people must be blinking.
They have to right now, because the Golden State Warriors really need his output. As Marcus Thompson II writes for the San Jose Mercury News, the pressure is on Curry, and he knows it.
Point Guard No. 1: Chris Paul (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 18.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 12.0 assists, 0.1 blocks, 2.4 steals, 27.03 PER
Chris Paul just keeps rolling along, although his scoring numbers are a bit down thanks to a few too many inefficient shooting performances. Believe it or not, that's actually a sign of vulnerability, especially if Stephen Curry keeps lighting up the stat sheets.
But again, CP3 is still rolling.
He's averaged 11.4 assists per game over his last five outings yet somehow coupled that with only 2.2 cough-ups per contest. How is that possible?
Only Paul knows.
Oh, and he's scoring 17.8 points per game while doing so. The man just continues to be the most elite point guard in basketball, even if his stranglehold on the No. 1 spot is being loosened by the stellar play of the younger floor general directly behind him.
Shooting Guard No. 5: Klay Thompson (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
Team: Golden State Warriors
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.0 steals, 17.56 PER
Klay Thompson continues to get more and more involved in the Golden State Warriors offense.
Please note that the decline in the rankings isn't due to a decline in performance. If anything, Thompson has gotten slightly better since the last set of rankings, but he hasn't been able to stave off the advances of another shooting guard.
Most impressively, Thompson has been passing the ball better than ever, showing the Dubs that he can take on more ball-handling responsibilities. Over his past five games, the 23-year-old 2-guard is averaging four assists per contest, and he's still only producing 2.6 turnovers.
If Thompson can continue developing as a distributor, there's a solid chance he becomes a truly elite player at his position.
Honorable Mentions: Jordan Crawford, DeMar DeRozan, Eric Gordon, Wesley Matthews, Kevin Martin
Shooting Guard No. 4: Arron Afflalo (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Team: Orlando Magic
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.0 blocks, 0.8 steals, 20.03 PER
Arron Afflalo is finally validating himself.
This 28-year-old shooting guard was once a highly thought-of prospect, back when he was with the Denver Nuggets. His two-way presence boded well for the future, but his development stagnated—especially when he was thrust into an uncomfortable role with the Orlando Magic.
Well, that was the past.
Afflalo is now thriving as the go-to scorer, and he's lighting up the scoreboard on a regular basis by averaging 21.9 points per game. Over the past five games, he has actually upped that number to 23.4, although he's doing so in slightly more inefficient fashion now that his three-point shooting is regressing to the mean.
There won't be much of an overall regression. Afflalo as a 20-point scorer looks to be fairly sustainable.
Shooting Guard No. 3: Dwyane Wade (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Team: Miami Heat
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 18.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.7 blocks, 2.1 steals, 20.76 PER
When Dwyane Wade plays, he's still as elite as it gets among shooting guards.
Problem is, he isn't playing much. No matter how good he is on the court, that can't completely trump all of the missed games, especially when he sat out five of the 11 games heading into the much-hyped showdown against the Indiana Pacers.
Again, he's great when on the court.
Wade isn't even pretending to shoot from the outside anymore, and it's allowing him to continue the strides he's making in the efficiency departments. Well, the shooting ones, since turnovers are still becoming a bit problematic.
Now the Heat just need him to stay healthy.
Shooting Guard No. 2: Monta Ellis (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Dallas Mavericks
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.2 blocks, 1.6 steals, 18.98 PER
Monta Ellis just won't go away.
The Portland Trail Blazers sure wished he would, especially when he capped off a 20-point outing with the game-winning shot at the buzzer, one that completely negated Damian Lillard's heroics. It was the rare perimeter jumper for Ellis, who is still playing the right kind of basketball.
He and Dirk Nowitzki have meshed together perfectly, and Ellis is looking like the combo guard who so many dreamed of during his heyday with the Golden State Warriors. Except that dream is a reality, and that time by the Bay is no longer his heyday.
These are the best days of his career, and it's not even close. He's thrilling old-school scouts and analytic minds at the same time.
Shooting Guard No. 1: James Harden (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Team: Houston Rockets
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 0.6 blocks, 1.4 steals, 22.05 PER
James Harden is actually...playing defense?
That's right—the bearded shooting guard has finally started to buckle down a bit on the defensive end of the court. He's still prone to forgetting he needs to prevent points, but the effort is coming around slowly but surely.
And it's still coupled with elite offensive output.
Over his past five games, Harden is averaging 28.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game while shooting 46.4 percent from the field and 84.3 percent at the charity stripe. Now if only he could get his shots to fall from downtown.
Small Forward No. 5: Luol Deng (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Team: Chicago Bulls
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.2 blocks, 1.1 steals, 18.05 PER
Ever since Derrick Rose went down with a torn meniscus, Luol Deng has been absolutely on fire for the Chicago Bulls. It seems like someone wants to stay with the franchise for as long as possible rather than slinking away in free agency.
But let's not overturn that stone right now. Instead, let's focus on Deng's recent play.
During his last four performances (he sat Saturday against the Detroit Pistons and Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks with some Achilles soreness), Deng averaged 27.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game.
No big deal.
Except it is. Deng is making another All-Star run, and it could be successful if he keeps up this type of play.
Honorable Mentions: Nicolas Batum, Jeff Green, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Chandler Parsons
Small Forward No. 4: Carmelo Anthony (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Team: New York Knicks
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.6 blocks, 1.1 steals, 22.61 PER
There's a lot of blame to be handed out for the New York Knicks' ugly start to the 2013-14 season, but not much of it falls on the shoulders of Carmelo Anthony.
He continues to play the right type of basketball, and he's making a noticeable effort to crash the boards more than ever before while buckling down on defense—well, sometimes buckling down on defense, especially because the word "defense" might as well not exist for the Knicks.
Anthony is playing unselfish basketball—despite his 2.7 assists per game.
He's slowly starting to play hero ball again, but only because his teammates continue to function as bricklayers on the rare occasions they don't play hot potato with the rock until it ends up back in his hands.
Again, find somewhere else to pin the blame.
Small Forward No. 3: Paul George (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
Team: Indiana Pacers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.3 blocks, 2.1 steals, 25.21 PER
There is no longer a gap between the top two small forwards and the rest of the field.
Paul George has firmly closed it, and he's making a serious run for the No. 2 spot, both now and in the future. However, he isn't quite there in the present.
This guy is an absolute stud on both ends of the court, but there is one aspect of his game that's beginning to get a little overrated: his passing.
George supposedly earned a reputation as a small forward so good at facilitating that he could be called a "point forward." But that hasn't been true in 2013-14, as he's unable to maintain his scoring levels while taking over as a passer. Over his last five games, George has averaged only 2.6 dimes, and that has dropped his season average to 3.4.
That isn't going to get the job done, especially not when going up against the two best players in basketball.
Small Forward No. 2: Kevin Durant (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.9 blocks, 1.4 steals, 28.11 PER
Kevin Durant had heard all of the hype about Paul George.
And then he made everyone sit tight-lipped by leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to victory when he took on George and the Indiana Pacers. Behind his 36 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, Durant sparked a 24-point win, and he was a defensive pest as well.
Scarily enough, this 25-year-old is only improving.
In 2013-14, he's been functioning as a point forward more than ever before, and his passing is getting quite good. Durant has averaged 4.8 assists per game during his last five outings, and those numbers are actually down from what he's done throughout the rest of the season.
On top of that, he's making a run at 50/40/90 again. The season percentages are still well shy, but over the same time frame, he's shot 55.2 percent from the field, 47.4 percent beyond the arc and 91.4 percent at the charity stripe.
Here we go again.
Small Forward No. 1: LeBron James (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Team: Miami Heat
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 0.4 blocks, 1.3 steals, 29.65 PER
LeBron James is not of this world.
Despite averaging 25.4 points per game, he's taking only 15.4 shots from the field during each outing. Let's put that in perspective.
According to Basketball-Reference, there are 20 players averaging at least 15.4 shots per game this season. Kevin Durant is the only one scoring more points per game than LeBron. But that's not as important as the next stat.
There are 403 players averaging fewer than 15.4 shots per game.
Among that group, LeBron has the top scoring average, and only four players are within five points: Dirk Nowitzki (21 points per game on 15.5 attempts per contest), Blake Griffin (20.7 on 15.5), Damian Lillard (20.7 on 15.8) and Brook Lopez (20.6 on 13.3).
LeBron James is not of this world.
Power Forward No. 5: Paul Millsap (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Team: Atlanta Hawks
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 blocks, 1.6 steals, 20.56 PER
It's time for Paul Millsap to get a bit more recognition.
The undersized forward labored away in obscurity for the Utah Jazz, and now he's doing the exact same thing for the Atlanta Hawks. Will it ever change for the 28-year-old?
Probably not, and that could be exactly how Millsap likes it. After all, it's allowed him to wreak havoc for his new team by doing just about everything Atlanta could possibly ask of him.
Lately, he's even been hitting three-pointers, knocking down 47.1 percent of his 3.4 attempts per contest over the last five games. That ability to stretch the floor is key for a Hawks team that relies on Al Horford's interior play and Jeff Teague's slashing abilities.
Millsap is the Swiss army knife that the Hawks were looking for, and he's exceeding the expectations by a rather large margin.
Honorable Mention: Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph, Jared Sullinger, Tristan Thompson
Power Forward No. 4: Blake Griffin (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.8 blocks, 1.0 steals, 20.60 PER
Blake Griffin just isn't going to slow down this season.
After one of his worst outings of the season—a 10-point, 10-rebound game against the Cleveland Cavaliers—Griffin rebounded his way to a much more impressive outing against the Philadelphia 76ers. With 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting, the athletic power forward once more put his skill and athleticism on full display.
Doc Rivers and the rest of the Los Angeles Clippers' coaching staff are still waiting for Griffin to become more than a slightly subpar defender, but that might be futile wishing at this point. He'll never be a true stopper, but his offensive value is keeping him right on the fringe of the elites.
It's tough to complain about that.
Power Forward No. 3: Dirk Nowitzki (Previous Ranking: No. 5)
Team: Dallas Mavericks
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.7 blocks, 1.1 steals, 23.80 PER
Dirk Nowitzki needed something to help him stave off the effects of Father Time. That something has been Monta Ellis, and it has allowed the German 7-footer to look like vintage Dirk once more.
Acting like a master of the mid-range once more, Nowitzki has averaged 23.4 points per game over his last five appearances, and he's done so while shooting 52.8 percent from the field. He's also hitting three-pointers with surprising frequency and flat-out refusing to miss many shots at the charity stripe.
The lack of defensive impact and work on the glass keeps this 35-year-old from rising any higher, but let's not take away from what he's been doing during the early portion of his 2013-14 campaign.
While reaffirming that he has plenty of quality basketball left in the tank, Dirk has become an unstoppable offensive entity.
Power Forward No. 2: Kevin Love (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 23.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.3 blocks, 0.8 steals, 25.74 PER
It can't be very surprising that Kevin Love fell back to Earth after his scorching start to the season, but he fell hard and fast—at least if you look at his shooting percentages.
Maybe his middle name is Icarus.
During the three games before missing the Miami Heat contest for personal reasons, Love shot 7-of-19, 6-of-14 and 4-of-14 from the field. Over that same time frame, the power forward went 8-of-20 from downtown and 14-of-20 at the charity stripe, so he did salvage his efficiency to some extent.
But the result was a more ineffective set of 17 points per game than we're typically accustomed to from this dominant offensive player.
Love depends on his scoring and rebounding for value, as he isn't much of a defensive stopper at all. When his shot isn't falling, he's subject to a drop in the rankings.
Especially when his competition is as red hot as it gets.
Power Forward No. 1: LaMarcus Aldridge (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 blocks, 1.1 steals, 23.14 PER
LaMarcus Aldridge should be in the MVP conversation at this point.
The 28-year-old big man has averaged 25.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game over his last five outings. And on top of that, he's shot 54.7 percent from the field and 86.2 percent at the charity stripe.
There's "on fire," and then there's whatever you want to call what Aldridge is. He's playing with unmistakable confidence and putting up absolutely monstrous numbers each time he steps onto the court.
That mid-range shot is absolutely deadly, and we can't overlook the defensive impact he's making. Although he's by no means a point-preventing phenom, Aldridge still plays well enough that the Portland Trail Blazers can leave him alone in the paint and allow the perimeter players to pounce on shooters.
Center No. 5: Brook Lopez (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Team: Brooklyn Nets
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 2.2 blocks, 0.5 steals, 28.56 PER
Brook Lopez is just an unstoppable offensive player.
Whether he's working on the blocks, finding creative ways to finish around the hoop, dunking the ball on putback opportunities or stepping out and hitting mid-range jumpers, he's putting the ball in the basket—a lot, and with a lot of efficiency.
However, he doesn't bring too much else to the table.
Although he's better protecting the rim than ever before, Lopez still actively avoids serving as the last line of defense. He has also become a complete offensive black hole—the passing numbers are awful—and can't rebound to save his life.
Unfortunately, the bad cancels out a lot of the good.
Center No. 4: Roy Hibbert (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
Team: Indiana Pacers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 3.1 blocks, 0.3 steals, 18.97 PER
We know that Roy Hibbert is a defensive stud. Even though he isn't blocking shots frequently enough to hold down the lead in the category, it's still true.
But his offense seems to fluctuate as often as the tides.
Hibbert goes through stretches in which he couldn't put the ball through the hoop if it were twice as large as normal, and then he starts turning into an offensive powerhouse. When the latter is the case, the Georgetown product knocks down plenty of jump hooks and has the confidence necessary to step out and hit mid-range jumpers.
Well, he's firmly embroiled in one of those hot stretches right now, and that allows him to remain put in the rankings despite the sensational play of this next guy.
Center No. 3: Andre Drummond (Previous Ranking: No. 5)
Team: Detroit Pistons
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 1.4 blocks, 1.9 steals, 23.88 PER
Normally, players don't break out this quickly.
But Andre Drummond isn't a normal basketball player. Clearly.
During November, the 20-year-old (read that again; it's not a typo) averaged 12.0 points and 12.0 rebounds per game while shooting 62.5 percent from the field. And he's making those numbers look like child's play during December.
Throughout the final month's opening salvo, Drummond has posted 18.4 points and 16.8 rebounds per contest while shooting 63.2 percent from the field. Yikes.
Now if only he could shoot free throws with something even resembling competence. Believe it or not, the 45.5 percent he's made in December represents not just a step in the right direction, but a leap.
Center No. 2: DeMarcus Cousins (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Team: Sacramento Kings
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 22.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 blocks, 1.7 steals, 26.27 PER
While DeMarcus Cousins keeps turning the ball over with alarming frequency, he's also responsible for enough of the Sacramento Kings offense that it's OK, especially now that he's shooting the ball so efficiently.
The three biggest knocks on Boogie have always been A) his low shooting percentages, B) his lack of defensive presence and C) his attitude.
While the middle problem hasn't changed much, Cousins is keeping his temper in check and starting to heat up from the field. During his last five games, he's shot 58.1 percent from the field while averaging 26 points per contest, and it doesn't appear to be particularly fluky.
However, his continued success remains to be seen now that the Kings are adding another black hole into the mix. Will Rudy Gay complement Cousins, or will he make a volatile player that much more prone to flare-ups?
Center No. 1: Dwight Howard (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Team: Houston Rockets
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 13.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.8 blocks, 0.8 steals, 20.98 PER
Even though he's still not blocking very many shots, Dwight Howard has begun to play the type of defense that was expected of him when he signed with the Houston Rockets. By anchoring the paint, the big man is ensuring that the perimeter defense surrounding him can focus solely on their own assignments.
Remember how the Rockets defense was really struggling at the beginning of the season?
Don't look now, but Basketball-Reference shows that Houston boasts a 103.5 defensive rating, one that leaves the team at No. 12 in the Association. So much for "struggling."
The difference can be credited to Howard, who is now completely comfortable with his mobile role behind the first line of defense. And he's gaining comfort while continuing to put up the offensive numbers we've come to expect from him, even if he doesn't have the same explosiveness he's put on display in the past.