NBA Superstar Rankings: LeBron James Holds Down Top Spot over Kevin Durant

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2014

NBA Superstar Rankings: LeBron James Holds Down Top Spot over Kevin Durant

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    It's been nearly a month since the last edition of NBA Superstar Rankings, and plenty has changed in that time.

    Big climbers like Stephen Curry and James Harden have improved their positions, while party-crashers like Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis have shoved their way into the mix as well.

    As a refresher, we're ranking the NBA's superstars on a number of criteria. On-court production is critical, but team success, media cache and other intangibles also matter. Basically, we're out to honor the league's most transcendent, skilled and recognizable talents.

    Naturally, Kevin Durant's recent move into the pole position of the MVP race gives him a boost, but he's still got some work to do before LeBron James relinquishes his throne.

    The rest of the rankings have shuffled up considerably, too.

    Let's check 'em out.

     

    All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

Fallen Stars

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    Chris Paul

    A definite member of the top 10 when healthy, Chris Paul is our first fallen star. A shoulder injury will keep CP3 off the floor for the next few weeks, which is long enough to temporarily disqualify him from these rankings.

    Rest assured, he'll be back among the superstar ranks as soon as he proves he's ready to play. For now, his absence opens up a spot for somebody else.

     

    Russell Westbrook

    Anybody who argues Russell Westbrook isn't a top-10 star should be subjected to a psychiatric evaluation. Nobody in today's game puts more pressure on a defense, and nobody plays harder. Highlights, production, wacky outfits—you name it, and Westbrook provides it.

    Out until the All-Star break with yet another knee surgery, he's on the sidelines of these rankings as well.

     

    Marc Gasol

    Per Ronald Tillery of The Memphis Commercial Appeal, Marc Gasol is progressing in his rehabilitation from a knee injury:

    Center Marc Gasol, out since Nov. 22 with a left MCL sprain, had a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam last Friday as part of his six-week checkup to monitor the healing process. Gasol is progressing well and has been cleared for light court work, according to team personnel. No return date has been set.

    As soon as he retakes the court, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year will warrant consideration among the top 10. For now, he'll have to settle for a cursory mention here.

10. Carmelo Anthony, F, New York Knicks

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    Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Statistics: 26.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 24.0 PER

    Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention

     

    It's tempting to say the New York Knicks have quietly played .500 ball over their past 10 games—until you realize that the Knicks don't do anything quietly.

    Beset by the ongoing tomfoolery of J.R. Smith and the constant media din that surrounds James Dolan's circus of a front office, the Knicks have gradually become a respectable on-court outfit amid a whole lot of noise.

    Carmelo Anthony has played well lately, despite the outside distractions of his impending fee agency and the Knicks' general wackiness. In four games since coming back from a sprained ankle, he's averaging 26.3 points and 7.8 rebounds on 47 percent shooting. More importantly, New York has won three out of four since 'Melo's return.

    Anthony still ranks seventh in the league in PER, and only a select few NBA players carry themselves with more of a superstar aura than he does.

    There'll always be legitimate questions about his isolation-heavy style and spotty defense, but 'Melo profiles as a top-10 superstar in both statistics and image.

9. Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers

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    2013-14 Statistics: 22.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks, 21.7 PER

    Previous Ranking: Unranked

     

    Blake Griffin faces either the threat of exposure or a golden opportunity over the next few weeks. How he performs without Paul's inimitable spoon-feeding will determine whether it's the former or latter.

    If a recent game is any indication, Griffin is going to use CP3's absence to prove he's capable of excelling alone. In a 111-105 victory over the Boston Celtics on Jan. 8, Griffin went off for 29 points, six rebounds and eight assists on 9-of-14 shooting.

    Thanks to a better-than-ever post game and the ability to facilitate in his own right, Griffin should keep the Clippers respectable while their best player is on the mend. If he does anything more than that, all the talk about him being little more than a dunker should go away for good.

    Of course, we're still on board with the dunks, too. But as ESPN's J.A. Adande writes, we should probably stop letting them distract us from the total game Griffin has built:

    Blake Griffin had Twitter going again Wednesday night over the standard Griffin Twitter-fodder: a dehumanizing throwdown over Kris Humphries. It obscured the real development: It was a night when Griffin was required to be the focal point of the offense, and a night when he delivered. 

    If he keeps delivering, Griffin will solidify his case as a top-10 superstar.

8. Anthony Davis, F, New Orleans Hornets

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    2013-14 Statistics: 19.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 3.1 blocks, 26.2 PER

    Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention

     

    Quick, name five players you'd rather have for the next decade instead of Anthony Davis. Can't do it, right?

    Really, there's a good case to be made that only LeBron James and Kevin Durant offer more long-term value than Davis, who has recovered quickly from a broken hand to retake his place among the league's 10 best players.

    Don't take my word for it, though. Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is on board, too. He told John Reid of The Times-Picayune

    There’s nothing he can’t do on the court. He’s clearly a David Robinson type. He blocks shots, changes shots, the offensive rebounding and then you can see his skill level. He can shoot and catch and go off a drive. He’s a great kind of talent.

    I think we can agree that Spoelstra has a pretty good idea of what "great talent" looks like.

    If Davis were to stop developing right this second, he'd still deserve to be a perennial All-Star. But the league's leading shot-blocker is still getting by on sheer athleticism at this point. When he figures out the nuances of team defense and polishes up his offensive game to an even brighter shine, look out.

7. James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    2013-14 Statistics: 24.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, 22.1 PER

    Previous Ranking: 10

     

    Fresh off a season-high 38 points in a comfortable blowout of the Los Angeles Lakers, James Harden finally seems to be rounding into form.

    The fact that he's been putting up such gaudy numbers while struggling to find his stroke from long distance (he's shooting just 32 percent from three-point land on the year) indicates just how devastating Harden's offensive game truly is.

    Defense is still an issue, and there's also some justifiable concern about whether Harden's soft-spoken nature will ever allow him to be a conventional leader. But this guy is unstoppable in the open court and will almost certainly see his outside shot regress to the mean in the future.

    Toss in his liberal use of the Eurostep and a signature look that makes him instantly recognizable, and you've got yourself a bona fide superstar.

6. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Portland Trail Blazers

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    2013-14 Statistics: 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 22.7 PER

    Previous Ranking: 5

     

    Don't take LaMarcus Aldridge's one-spot drop since the last edition of these rankings as a slight. It's not his fault a couple of big climbers have scaled past him in recent weeks.

    Besides, for a guy who occupied an unenviable spot as the NBA's least-appreciated superstar for the past few years, checking in at No. 6 still represents a pretty big spike in well-deserved notoriety.

    Aldridge's Portland Trail Blazers have stayed hot, boasting the best offense in the league thanks largely to his mid-range excellence and leadership. Concerns about Portland's defense are well-founded, though, and should contribute to a minor swoon during the season's second half.

    That impending dip shouldn't detract from what Aldridge has done to this point. He's enjoying a career year as the leader of one of the NBA's best squads. Sounds like a superstar to me.

5. Kevin Love, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    2013-14 Statistics: 26.1 points, 13.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 27.7 PER

    Previous Ranking: 7

     

    If the only determinant for superstardom were raw numbers, Kevin Love would rank a whole lot higher than No. 5. But because fuzzier things like demeanor, leadership and the entirely vague "it factor" are also concerns, the statistically dominant Love will have to settle for the fifth spot.

    To be frank, he would have checked in a position or two higher before his recent screed against a couple of less-than-enthusiastic teammates.

    Per Nate Sandell of ESPN, Love said after another gut-wrenching late-game defeat, "We can't have two guys sitting at the end of the bench, who play good minutes, just sitting there and not getting up at timeouts. We all need to be in this together. That kind of pisses me off. We're supposed to be a team."

    That little snippet earns Love an "A" for content but a solid "F" for execution.

    Complaints like this need to stay behind closed doors. If Love is upset about the bench demeanor of J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham, he should be telling them about it in the locker room. Airing them out to the media is a bad look, and it speaks to the crumbling morale in Minnesota.

    There's absolutely no question that Love is one of the NBA's elite talents. His presence on the floor is the only thing keeping the Wolves from being a bottom-five team in the league.

    But he can't just crush his teammates publicly like this, even when what he's saying is completely justified.

    Superstars should know better.

4. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Statistics: 23.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 22.2 PER

    Previous Ranking: 6

     

    This isn't the only list of NBA luminaries Stephen Curry has been climbing lately.

    According to the most recent round of NBA All-Star voting, the Golden State Warriors' sharpshooting guard has vaulted ahead of Chris Paul to take over the No. 2 spot among Western Conference guards.

    It's hard to fault the Dubs' enthusiastic contingent of voters on this one. Curry, with a helping hand from the red-hot David Lee, recently led the Warriors on a 10-game winning streak that included six consecutive road victories.

    The Dubs slipped up against the Brooklyn Nets to end that run, but dropping the back end of a back-to-back on the final contest of a seven-game road trip is understandable, don't you think?

    No quarter is ever safe from a Curry three-point explosion, and there's basically no shot on the floor that he shouldn't take. He's playing major minutes, is second in the NBA in assists per game and has firmly established himself as one of the league's all-around good dudes.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to vote for Curry another 600 times before lunch. He only needs another couple hundred thousand to catch Kobe Bryant.

3. Paul George, SF, Indiana Pacers

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    2013-14 Statistics: 23.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 22.4 PER

    Previous Ranking: 3

     

    At the risk of oversimplifying, the best player on the team with the NBA's best record deserves a top-three spot in any logical set of defensible superstar rankings. Hence, Paul George checks in at No. 3.

    For those interested in lengthier explanations, consider the following:

    George is posting career highs in true shooting percentage, points, rebounds steals and PER in a season where his usage rate has spiked immensely. Normally, a bigger share of offensive responsibility would coincide with a drop in efficiency.

    Not for George, though.

    And then there's his defense, which typically gets mentioned second but should be the very first thing anyone brings up when discussing the 23-year-old stud.

    Per 82games.com, he holds opposing small forwards to a PER of 13.2. When he occasionally slides over to check shooting guards, his smothering defense meets the military definition of torture—opposing 2s have posted a PER of 3.2 against him this year.

    Keep in mind that George always matches up against the other team's best wing, too. That makes his defensive numbers all the more impressive.

    Whether you're into simple explanations or detailed ones, George belongs among the league's biggest stars.

2. Kevin Durant, F, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    2013-14 Statistics: 29.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.9 blocks, 29.5 PER

    Previous Ranking: 2

     

    I gave Kevin Durant the No. 1 spot in a recent set of MVP odds, which might seem hard to square with his second-place finish here. Explaining the difference is easy, so long as you're willing to accept the various intangibles that go into calling someone a "superstar."

    Let's face it: Durant isn't the face of the league. If you polled millions of fans around the world, his wouldn't be the first name they'd know. He's not in every other commercial during NBA broadcasts. I mean, we don't even know how he feels about Samsung products.

    Those distinctions belong to somebody else whose name I'm sure you've guessed and whom we'll get to momentarily.

    Let's not take anything away from Durant, though, who is rightfully an MVP favorite—both by my own odds and Vegas'. He leads the league in scoring, PER and win shares, per Basketball-Reference.com, and has actually profiled as a more statistically dominant defender than the guy in the No. 1 spot this season.

    He's a fantastic and deserving candidate for his first MVP award.

    But he's not the NBA's top-ranked superstar.

1. LeBron James, F, Miami Heat

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    2013-14 Statistics: 25.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 29.2 PER

    Previous Ranking: 1

     

    By most statistical measures, LeBron James lags slightly behind Durant this season. But as you probably surmised from the previous slide, this isn't all about the numbers.

    James is the NBA's marquee face, its most marketable star and still probably its most entertaining player. He and the Heat are doing a little bit of coasting this year, which is what championship teams do when they're trying to preserve themselves for a third consecutive title run.

    So take his mild statistical decline with a grain of salt.

    The fact is that no player currently combines the winning track record, elite talent and high profile that James boasts. Maybe it's unfair to give him credit for things like visibility, name recognition and market cache, but because the term "superstar" tends to encompass so much more than regular on-court production, it makes sense to slot him ahead of KD.

    As a total superstar package, James is still King.