NBA Superstar Rankings: Kevin Durant and Paul George Chasing Down LeBron James

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 12, 2013

NBA Superstar Rankings: Kevin Durant and Paul George Chasing Down LeBron James

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    It's starting to get a little crowded atop the NBA's superstar hierarchy.

    LeBron James has held down primary position for quite a while, but with so many legitimate contenders hot on his heels lately, a change could be on the way. Chief among said challengers are Paul George and Kevin Durant, two ever-improving luminaries who earned the season's first Player of the Month honors in their respective conferences.

    Watch out, King James; that crown you're wearing is a hot commodity.

    As a refresher, we're out to rank the NBA's best and brightest here. So statistics, intangibles and team success are all going to factor in. There will be no extra points awarded for commercials, shoe deals or excessive use of offspring as a marketing tool.

    That last one is largely responsible for Chris Paul's exclusion from the top three. We get it, CP3; little Chris is adorable. But it's not fair to stick him in front of the camera in an effort to incur favor in our rankings.

    Otherwise, this isn't rocket science. Here come the superstars.

     

    *All stats via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

Honorable Mentions

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    Russell Westbrook

    The athleticism, aggression and attitude have all been there for Russell Westbrook since he returned ahead of schedule from knee surgery. That makes sense, though. It seems like the Oklahoma City Thunder's hard-charging point guard rolls out of bed running 100 miles per hour.

    If not for some shaky shooting, Westbrook would have cracked the top 10. Something tells me he'll be sprinting up the ranks soon enough.

     

    Carmelo Anthony

    Under normal circumstances, 25.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and a PER north of 23 would be good enough to get into one of the top 10 spots here. But Carmelo Anthony's team is playing some of the worst basketball in the league.

    While it's not fair to blame him for everything going wrong with the New York Knicks, it's also impossible to put him above any of the 10 players we'll get to momentarily. Superstars make their teams better. Right now, Anthony's not doing that.

     

    Anthony Davis

    Everybody's favorite breakout star ended up suffering an actual break that put his remarkable season on hold. Anthony Davis still ranks third in the league in PER, per Basketball-Reference.com, but as long as he's out with a fractured hand, it's probably not fair to include him in the top 10.

     

    Damian Lillard

    The man in charge of running the NBA's most pleasantly surprising team, Damian Lillard has taken a significant step forward this year. He's hitting threes more consistently (Isn't everyone on the Portland Trail Blazers?), turning the ball over less often and showing the kind of leadership that you'd normally associate with a 10-year veteran.

    He's getting closer to cracking the top 10. Not yet, though.

10. James Harden (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: SG

    Age: 24

    Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, 22.0 PER

     

    Since returning from a three-game layoff to rest his sore foot, James Harden has looked a bit more like himself. He touched up the San Antonio Spurs for 31 points on Nov. 11, dropped 37 on 22 shots against the Utah Jazz on Dec. 2 and needed just two more assists for a triple-double against the Orlando Magic on Dec. 8.

    There have been some ugly games interspersed throughout his season, but recent events suggest Harden is closing in on peak form.

    I'll be honest; his early-season struggles from long distance and well-chronicled indifference on defense are major strikes against his superstar case. But he still gets to the line at an absurd rate, still functions as the Houston Rockets' most important offensive player and still has that beard.

    We now know that playing with Dwight Howard isn't easy. With that in mind, it's fair to expect Harden to improve as he gradually gets more comfortable with D12 in the middle. And really, his superficial numbers are all good enough to justify his position here.

9. Roy Hibbert (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)

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    Team: Indiana Pacers

    Position: C

    Age: 27

    Per-Game Stats: 13.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.3 steals, 3.0 blocks, 19.3 PER

     

    That's right, I finally did it. I put Roy Hibbert where he belongs: among the NBA's top 10 superstars.

    Want to know something? It feels great.

    If you care about little things like being the best defensive player on the planet, totally controlling the paint and giving the Indiana Pacers the X-factor they need to beat the Miami Heat, I'm sure you'll agree on the point that Hibbert deserves his ranking here.

    If anything, our relative ignorance about defensive analytics might someday make this No. 9 ranking seem comically low. We're still a long way off from really understanding how to measure defensive value, which prevents Hibbert from being a superstar in the minds of many.

    We'll get that information eventually, though. And when we do, I've got a hunch that we'll appreciate the big man from Georgetown even more.

8. Tony Parker (Previous Ranking: 10)

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Position: PG

    Age: 31

    Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 2.5 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 19.8 PER

     

    Don't look now, but the San Antonio Spurs are the best team in the NBA. Well, if you care about net rating they are.

    According to NBA.com, the Spurs outscore their opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions, the largest margin in the league. That number has a lot to do with the merciless 32-point beating they hung on the hapless Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 11.

    However you slice it, though, San Antonio is a juggernaut. And, as usual, Tony Parker is the man leading the charge. Listing him here is boring because he plays just 30 minutes per game, doesn't generate highlight dunks and controls the offense in subtle, hard-to-appreciate ways.

    In a way, he's just as good of a symbol for the Spurs' understated dominance as Tim Duncan is. And with Duncan struggling through his worst statistical campaign, credit for San Antonio's fantastic early-season play goes to Parker. He's a superstar in all of the ways that matter.

7. Kevin Love (Previous Ranking: 5)

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    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Position: PF

    Age: 25

    Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 13.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 26.2 PER

     

    We need some kind of statistic to measure the enjoyability of Kevin Love's outlet passes. Maybe we could come up with a cool abbreviation and everything. How about "Outlet Pass Awesomeness Rating," or OPAR for short?

    It's not like Love needs yet another statistical category to dominate, but it just feels wrong that we can't quantify how utterly enjoyable (and effective) his flick-of-the-wrist heaves to streaking guards truly are. The Minnesota Timberwolves love to run, and it's Love's rocket passes from the backcourt that function as the starter's gun.

    Then again, maybe we already have enough stats. I guess he'll have to settle for having the sixth-best PER and highest per-game rebound average in the league.

6. Stephen Curry (Previous Ranking: 9)

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: PG

    Age: 25

    Per-Game Stats: 24.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, 24.6 PER

     

    Stephen Curry earned his No. 6 spot (and associated three-spot jump from the last set of rankings) before he drilled a game-winner with 1.5 seconds remaining to beat the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 11.

    After watching that shot and considering his overall statistical profile this season, this feels a little low. But it might seem a little reactive to allow one shot to change the entire calculus involved here.

    Of all the statistical measures to quantify Curry's greatness, the simplest one involves comparing how great the Golden State Warriors are with him on the court against their total ineptitude when he hits the bench. Per NBA.com, the Dubs have a net rating of plus-9.7 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor.

    When he sits, they post a minus-8.2.

    That's partially a function of the team's lack of a capable backup point guard, but also a very clear indicator of his immense value. This guy isn't just an ace shooter anymore. He's a franchise-altering superstar.

5. LaMarcus Aldridge (Previous Ranking: 8)

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    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Position: PF

    Age: 28

    Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks, 23.1 PER

     

    Portland Trail Blazers fans are notorious for their intense, occasionally frightening devotion to their beloved team. That's worth mentioning here because for all of their wild enthusiasm and relentless optimism, Blazers supporters don't usually mess around with facetious MVP chants.

    So when they shout those three important letters in unison at LaMarcus Aldridge, you know they're serious about them.

    And you know what? It's not crazy that MVP chants for Aldridge are starting to get louder. He's the best player on the team sitting atop a brutally difficult Western Conference, and he's smack in the middle of his best-ever season.

    There's something special going on in Portland. The Blazers are defying expectations, playing a beautifully unselfish brand of basketball that generates an inordinate amount of open looks and acting like they belong among the league's elite.

    If they keep this up, the loyal fans in Rip City might not be the only ones shouting about Aldridge.

4. Chris Paul (Previous Ranking: 2)

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PG

    Age: 28

    Per-Game Stats: 18.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 11.9 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 27.0 PER

     

    It's hard to pinpoint the explanation for Paul's phenomenal performance this season. Maybe it's the influence of point guard whisperer Doc Rivers. Maybe it's his understanding that at 28, his prime is nearing its end.

    Perhaps he's just trying to live up to his $107 million contract.

    Teammate Darren Collison has his own theory on the source of CP3's brilliance, and it's actually pretty simple.

    Per Tom Layman of the Boston Herald, Collison said: 

    I think from a mental standpoint, he understands that every game is important because it’s closer to our team goal as far as winning a championship. I think he's more mentally focused than I've ever seen him since my rookie year.

    There you have it: Paul has dialed up the mental focus because he's got championship tunnel vision. I'll buy that.

    Hopefully, he's too focused on that title pursuit to notice his two-spot drop in these superstar rankings. I really don't want to have to explain the reasoning to him. He seems pretty intense.

3. Paul George (Previous Ranking: 4)

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    Team: Indiana Pacers

    Position: SF

    Age: 23

    Per-Game Stats: 24.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 24.5 PER

     

    George possesses the same odd combination of unflappable confidence and incessant insecurity that we've seen from so many NBA greats. I realize that's a confusing way to describe him, but consider what he's shown us this season and it'll get clearer.

    There's no doubting his self-assuredness in games. George has morphed into a player who absolutely craves the "big shot." He loves hoisting up threes in high-pressure situations, and he never shies away from the ball when the game is on the line.

    At the same time, he and his Pacers are telling anyone who'll listen that they want to be the best, that they've got a rivalry with the Miami Heat and that they're gunning for the No. 1 seed in the East.

    George and Indiana want to be taken seriously. They want respect. They want you to stand up and take notice of their excellence.

    Those are telltale signs of insecurity. Of course, George's latent self-doubt is a highly valuable trait because it allows him to manufacture doubters who don't actually exist. You know, like Kobe Bryant does. And like Michael Jordan did.

    George can't yet be counted among the all-time greats, but he's got the mind-set to get there someday.

2. Kevin Durant (Previous Ranking: 3)

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: SF

    Age: 25

    Per-Game Stats: 28.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.0 blocks, 27.7 PER

     

    Apparently, Durant had heard just about enough of the talk circulating throughout the league.

    As George and the Pacers' ascent continued unabated, whispers about KD losing his grip on the No. 1 contender position (behind James) started getting louder. He silenced them by hanging 36 points on George in OKC's 118-94 drubbing of Indiana on Dec. 8.

    KD is a generally quiet, polite and soft-spoken guy. But nobody should ever mistake that laid-back demeanor for a lack of pride. Durant cares about being great, and it probably irks him enough to know that he's not James' equal.

    When people started to talk about George overtaking him, Durant knew he had to send a message.

    Message received, KD. You're a bad, bad man.

1. LeBron James (Previous Ranking: 1)

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Position: All of Them

    Age: 28

    Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks, 28.9 PER

     

    What's there left to say?

    James' hold on the top spot might be getting a little weaker, but he's not actually in danger of letting it slip away anytime soon.

    Yes, George's Pacers beat James' Heat. That was a heck of an accomplishment. On balance, though, the King is still dominating games with a casual ease that no other player can match.

    The league's leader in PER for the past seven seasons running, LBJ is currently on pace to improve on his legendary efficiency numbers from last year. He's hitting 43 percent of his triples, leading the league in field-goal percentage at the rim, per NBA.com, and playing elite defense at whatever position he happens to be in on any given night.

    Nobody's better, and nobody's a bigger star.

    Putting together this edition of the rankings involved some tough calls. This wasn't one of them.