LeBron James hasn't been the best basketball player in the world during the 2013-14 season.
A week ago, that was a controversial statement. But after LeBron fell in a head-to-head matchup against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, it should be commonly accepted that his fellow superstar has moved into the No. 1 spot in player rankings and the all-important race for MVP.
However, is LeBron safe at No. 2? Has he been passed—as a superstar—by Carmelo Anthony or one of the other contenders? He's looking at you skeptically in that picture, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.
And here's where I have to turn to B/R's Grant Hughes for the thrust of these rankings, which he wrote in the last edition. It's his series that I'm taking over for the week, after all:
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.
I would never dream of calling 'Melo a better player than LeBron, but in a ranking of superstardom based primarily on recent events? That's when it might happen, and you'll have to read on to find out if I'm bold enough to pull the trigger.
Recency is important, so please keep in mind that these rankings are intentionally reactive. The near past matters far more than the distant past.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are accurate as of Jan. 31 and come from Basketball-Reference.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 23.3 PER
LaMarcus Aldridge should have gotten into the All-Star Game as a starter, but he had to settle for being a coaches' selection. Something tells me he was either unanimously picked as a reserve or pretty darn close to it.
The Portland Trail Blazers big man has been playing phenomenal ball throughout the year, but his failure to earn many votes from the fans shows exactly why he's slipping in the superstar rankings. Not only is Aldridge's game starting to take a step backward, but he's not a glamorous player or personality.
Unless you live in Rip City, when was the last time you saw an Aldridge commercial?
Aldridge has been one of the elite five power forwards—himself, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis and Dirk Nowitzki—but he's the least exciting of the bunch. That works strongly against him in these rankings, even if I currently have him as the best 4 in the NBA.
Team: Dallas Mavericks
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 blocks, 23.8 PER
Speaking of elite power forwards, how about what Dirk Nowitzki has been doing lately?
The word "decline" doesn't even begin to describe his play, especially recently. Over the German 7-footer's last five games, he's averaged a sensational 25.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, all while shooting 50 percent from the field.
If you're looking for a reason that the Dallas Mavericks remain right in the thick of the race for a playoff spot in the brutally tough Western Conference, look no further than Nowitzki.
He and Monta Ellis have been fantastic all year long, and the impact Nowitzki has had is huge.
The 35-year-old just refuses to cave in to Father Time, and that earns major superstar points in my book.
Team: Indiana Pacers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.6 PER
Paul George is far lower in the superstar rankings than he would be in an actual ranking of players from a pure skill perspective.
Even though the Indiana Pacers swingman has emerged as the No. 3 player in basketball (No. 4 when Chris Paul is healthy, though, that's a legitimate argument at this point), these are intentionally reactive rankings. What happened recently matters a lot more than the distant past, and George has taken a step in the wrong direction.
His January per-game averages lag behind the seasonal ones: 21.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists, coming on 41 percent shooting from the field. That last number is the key one, as George hasn't been hitting the same superstar shots we've become accustomed to seeing him make.
Oh, and the Pacers have gone 2-3 over their last five games, even needing overtime to beat the Sacramento Kings. Although the Miami Heat have struggled during January, Indiana hasn't been able to create much of a cushion in the race for the No. 1 seed.
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 12.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 26.8 PER
Remember what I said about recent play mattering a lot?
That doesn't help out Kevin Love too much.
Though he's got the Minnesota Timberwolves winning games and crawling above .500 at this point in the season for the first time in a decade, his individual numbers aren't as spectacular as normal. The scoring and rebounding is, but the efficiency just isn't there.
Over his past five games, Love has shot just 42 percent from the field and 18.5 percent beyond the arc. Has that deterred him from shooting, though?
Absolutely not, as Love is lofting up 5.4 triples per game over the same stretch.
Based on the combined effort of his play and the 'Wolves' winning record, Love doesn't really deserve to fall down a few spots in the rankings. But he can't help the ascent of a few other superstars, all of whom are flat-out balling in recent weeks.
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 3.3 blocks, 26.8 PER
Even at just 20 years old, Anthony Davis is averaging a ridiculous 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, and he's doing so while shooting well over 50 percent from the field and leading the NBA in rejections. He's unquestionably becoming a superstar, even if he can't take a celebratory swig of champagne.
"The Unibrow" still struggles defending pick-and-rolls, and he could stand to play a bit more help defense.
However, that's about where the flaws end for this All-Star.
He's not an All-Star? The coaches somehow overlooked him in the Western Conference selection process? Even though he's been one of the 10 most dominant players in the Association?
Well that's just ridiculous.
The All-Star omission hurts his case in these rankings, but fear not. That's canceled out almost completely by the brilliance of this commercial.
Team: Golden State Warriors
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 23.0 PER
Stephen Curry went from All-Star snub to All-Star starter in one year, and he deserved it.
Well, he didn't deserve to be snubbed in 2013, but he certainly belongs in the starting five for the Western Conference this season. Not only has Curry become one of the more marketable faces in the NBA, but he's flat-out dominating for the Golden State Warriors.
Although the Dubs haven't been able to climb up the standings in the Western Conference, it's hard to blame Curry. Kind of like how you can't fault him in the Jan. 24 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he put up 33 points and 15 assists on 23 shots from the field.
Slowly but surely, Curry's three-point figures are creeping up to the marks we've come to expect from the league's best shooter.
And all the while, he remains the one and only player to rank in the top six for points and assists per game.
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 22.9 PER
At this point, everyone knows that Blake Griffin is a constant presence on your television screen, even when the Los Angeles Clippers aren't playing. No. 32 has become one of the most popular players in basketball, and he was a deserving recipient of a starting spot in the Western Conference, even if the vote came mostly because of his highlights.
What people are starting to realize, though, is that this guy is a completely dominant force at power forward.
Even though Chris Paul has been absent from the lineup, Griffin has kept the Clips right near the top of the Western Conference standings. Rather than taking a step back without an elite distributor making his life easy, the 24-year-old big man has actually gotten better.
Here's what Grantland's Zach Lowe had to say about the ridiculous perception that he's still "only a dunker:"
All of this gives rise to the single most annoying basketball fan myth: that Griffin is a one-dimensional dunker with no post game, no hoops sophistication, and nothing to fall back upon when leaping isn’t enough to win. Seriously: You can’t tweet one positive thing about the guy without a legion of critics screaming about how empty Griffin’s game is.
As the Clippers continue to win without Paul, it becomes increasingly clear the “HE CAN ONLY DUNK!” crowd simply does not watch Los Angeles Clippers basketball.
Lowe goes on to thoroughly dismantle that myth in an article that should be read in its entirety by everyone who refuses to accept Blake's stardom.
At this point, you're just wrong if you don't see it. Sorry, but it's time to stop sugarcoating things.
Team: Miami Heat
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 26.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 28.7 PER
When was the last time you saw LeBron James out of the top spot in a set of rankings?
Better yet, when was the last time you saw LeBron James out of the top two spots in a set of rankings?
This is blasphemy!
Except it's not, because LeBron hasn't been able to capture the attention of the basketball world quite as much as two other players during the month of January. The Miami Heat have gone only 8-6 since the calendars flipped over to 2014, and James hasn't had any of those legendary performances.
He's been fantastic, of course. But there haven't been any 50-point outings, triple-doubles or other headline-grabbing feats of statistical superiority.
LeBron remains the leading off-court superstar, and he's been in the news countless times. Sometimes it seems as if the world wants to hear about every single word he utters, even if that's obviously not the case.
But on the court? He's lagged behind two other players by more than just an insignificant margin.
Team: New York Knicks
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 27.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.7 blocks, 25.0 PER
Don't make the mistake of thinking that Carmelo Anthony's meteoric ascent up the rankings is the result of one outlier of a performance.
Yes, 'Melo's 62-point explosion in Madison Square Garden was absolutely fantastic. The New York Knicks forward put on quite a show with his shooting ability, and he added 13 rebounds and a goose egg in the turnover column, which only adds to the impressive nature of the performance.
In one night, he captured the franchise scoring record and the MSG record, which simply can't be taken lightly.
But this is about more than what happened during that Jan. 24 outing against the overmatched Charlotte Bobcats, who had actually been good at defense prior to that fateful night.
During his last five games, Anthony has averaged a scorching 35.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest, and he's shooting 52.1 percent from the field, 55.6 percent beyond the arc and 84.2 percent at the charity stripe. Even more importantly, the Knicks have gone 4-1.
In fact, New York is now only a half game out of the playoff picture, and things are finally starting to trend up as some of 'Melo's teammates get their acts together.
Even if it only lasts until the next edition of these rankings sees him drop back down behind LeBron James, Anthony deserves the No. 2 spot.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 31.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks, 31.1 PER
"There’s a feeling you have where you see this guy doing things that nobody else on the planet can do at that time. That’s what Kobe did during that stretch, and that’s what Kevin is doing now."
Recently, Durant has been playing better than anyone else in the world, and it's about a whole lot more than scoring. Though his point-producing exploits have taken the basketball-watching crowd by storm and will be discussed in just a second, Durant is also playing lockdown defense, rebounding with enthusiasm and distributing the ball effectively and efficiently.
He's become a complete player.
However, the scoring has stood out for a reason.
Durant, while steering the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder to the top of the Western Conference, has topped 30 points in each of his last dozen games. That run of excellence is highlighted by a 54-point outing against the Golden State Warriors and a game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks that came in the face of a triple-team.
But it's not like he's been throwing up shots with reckless abandon. The Slim Reaper K.D. has shot 54.4 percent from the field and 42 percent beyond the arc during the streak, and his 38 points per game have come on "only" 22.8 shots each contest.
Say hello to the NBA's current leading superstar.