If All-Star Weekend presents the best players an opportunity to scheme with one another on forming the next super team, it is also a time for reflection.
With over half the season's games in the rearview mirror there's plenty of material to debate the game's most important questions.
Will Michael Carter-Williams coast to a surprising Rookie of the Year win or does preseason favorite Victor Oladipo have big plans for the final 30 games? (My money is on Oladipo.)
When will time finally run out on Mike Woodson's tenure in New York? (He's probably not going anywhere, for now.)
Did Blake Griffin really slap Justin Bieber in a Starbucks? (One can only hope.)
Commissioner David Stern's swan song season has seen some significant shuffling of the deck in terms of the NBA's elite and we're here to rank the 10 best players as they (mostly) all descend on New Orleans.
This largely scientific job takes Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Estimated Wins Added (EWA), plus/minus (P/M), and team record into account in unequal parts. X-factor nuggets such as the aforementioned Bieber incident add clout to each player's argument.
And the 10 best players in the NBA in 2013-14 (preceded by a few Honorable Mentions) are...
Chris Paul has been nothing short of dominant as he continues to distance himself from all other NBA players who call themselves a point guard. He leads the league with 11.1 assists per game and only three others have dished out more dimes despite Paul sitting out 18 games. His 27.2 PER is fourth best, and his 7.1 win shares rank 11th, again despite missing over a third of the season.
But those missed games—particularly the Clippers' level of play in his absence—prevent him from making the list. Los Angeles, 23-12 before Paul's injury, went 12-6 in his absence for a nearly identical winning percentage. Doc Rivers and Co. would rather have him in the lineup, especially come playoff time, but Blake Griffin almost made you forget Paul was gone.
It's safe to say Dwight Howard has put the failed Laker experiment behind him. The Rockets' big man continues to be a looming inside presence. He's fourth in rebounds (12.5), ninth in blocks (1.8) and sports a 0.474 opponents field-goal percentage at the rim, 11th among players facing at least five such attempts per game. His 0.581 field-goal percentage is third best.
According to SB Nation, Howard is fourth in points per play on pick-and-rolls and second as a cutter.
Along with James Harden, Howard has helped Houston leapfrog both Portland and the Clippers into third place in the Western Conference. Howard could clean up his act on defense a bit—he's tied with Griffin for the most personal fouls with 188.
The ageless German refuses to slow down. Despite playing 16 seasons in Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki is putting up numbers akin to his prime years. His field-goal percentage (.492) and three-point percentage (.412) are the third and fourth best of his career, respectively.
PER: 22.79 (11th)
EWA: 10.2 (11th)
P/M: 236 (24th)
Team Record: 30-21 (7th West)
Let's start off the list with a shocker.
Goran Dragic catapulted himself from trade chip to backup point guard to bona fide star in three seasons. And he's been nothing short of sensational as the Phoenix Suns make a surprise run at the playoffs.
The Suns, at 30-21, sit just 1.5 games from falling out of a playoff spot. To give this achievement some context, both ESPN and Sports Illustrated had Phoenix 29th out of 30 teams in their respective preseason power rankings.
Eric Bledsoe, the Suns' other star guard, was in the midst of a career year himself before a season-ending injury knocked him out at the turn of the New Year.
Dragic has kept Phoenix afloat in his absence. The Slovenian's scoring has risen every month this season, from 17.4 in November to 24.2 in February. He's deadly from three-point range, hitting 41 percent of beyond the arc. And he's putting up career bests in true shooting percentage (.613), scoring (20.3) and turnover ratio (11.3).
Thanks in large part to Dragic, Phoenix has beaten up some of the bigs: Portland, both Golden State (in the video above) and Indiana twice, as well as the Clippers and Mavericks.
The crafty lefty is easily one of the biggest All-Star snubs, along with the No. 9 player.
PER: 26.15 (6th)
EWA: 11.6 (8th)
P/M: 3 (183rd)
Team Record: 18-35 (15th West)
For all the headaches his temperament can cause, DeMarcus Cousins is finally balling at a level that forces you to excuse his behavior.
If Sacramento weren't 18-35 and in serious play to win the draft lottery, Cousins would find himself a few spots higher on the list.
But Boogie is doing all he can to pull the woeful Kings out of the NBA cellar. He's the only guy on this list—and in the entire league, for that matter—to average in the top 20 in four of the five major statistical categories. His line, with ranks in parentheses: 22.5 points (9), 11.7 rebounds (5), 1.6 steals (15) and 1.2 blocks (20).
The Kings are quite talented on paper with an emerging star (Isaiah Thomas), proven veterans (Rudy Gay, Grievis Vasquez) and heaps of raw talent (Derrick Williams, Ben McLemore, etc.). Yet, they still rely so heavily on Cousins that he has the second-highest usage rate in the league behind Durant. The first few minutes of the video show Cousins' speed, size and strength—and his awareness to use all three to his advantage, something he hasn't always demonstrated in the past.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Boogie is handling the added responsibility with poise. He's shooting, scoring and rebounding at career-high levels. Tellingly, the Kings are 0-7 in games Cousins has missed.
Of all the players in the NBA with whom he could have a protracted beef, Cousins chose Mike Dunleavy.
PER: 22.4 (11th)
EWA: 10.7 (10th)
P/M: 292 (14th)
Team Record: 36-17 (5th West)
At 23.9 points per game Aldridge's a full two points above his previous career high, and he had never averaged double-digit rebounds before 2013-14. Heck, he's even dishing out more assists than ever.
Aldridge was originally penciled in somewhere around the No. 4 or No. 5 spot on this list until these little statistical nuggets appeared, courtesy of SB Nation writer Steve Perrin:
While his [Aldridge's] rebounding is at a career high level, his shooting percentages are all at career low levels. So while he's averaging a career high in points per game, that's strictly a result of more shots. Of the three and a half additional shots he takes every game, he's missing two of them.
Perrin points out that Aldridge's .512 true shooting percentage is tied with Kemba Walker for last among all players averaging at least 18 points per game.
Nevertheless, Aldridge has helped Portland buck expectations; the Blazers sit just two games back of second place San Antonio, nominally tied with Houston and the Clippers heading into the break.
Need more proof? While sidekick Damian Lillard made headlines in the first half of the season with multiple buzzer-beaters, Aldridge is still the Blazers' late-game option. He's seventh in the NBA with 85 points in clutch situations—less than five minutes to play with neither team holding more than a five-point lead—and has helped Portland to a .656 win percentage in those situations.
Cousins and Kevin Love are the only other players in the top 10 in both scoring and rebounding.
PER: 24.61 (8th)
EWA: 13.3 (4th)
P/M: 50 (93rd)
Team Record: 20-32 (10th East)
Carmelo Anthony scores. He scores and scores—27.3 points every night, in fact—but the Knicks keep losing.
Much like Cousins, Anthony would be a few spots higher were his team not in danger of entering the draft lottery. And they won't even get to use that pick.
But, Anthony's individual season cannot be ignored. He leads the league in minutes at 38.8. With all that court time comes the opportunity to do something like score 62 points in Madison Square Garden. He's also on pace to shoot above 40 percent from three for the first time in his career.
Not only is Melo shooting well, but he's creating for teammates. Anthony is on pace to generate the most points from assists in his career. Per Chris Herring's tweet, he is the most effective passer against double teams.
In an article for The Wall Street Journal article, Herring questions whether all of Melo's minutes make him a late-game liability:
Anthony is almost always at his best early in games. This season, he's shooting a blistering 51.1% in first quarters. But like clockwork, he is running out of gas late, shooting just 36.7% in fourth quarters. (That discrepancy has been even worse in February, with Anthony shooting 56% in first quarters and 36% in fourth quarters.)
The bottom line is that the New York Knicks are a major struggle-fest outside of Anthony's scoring, as evidenced by his 13th-best 6.9 win shares. Essentially, his efforts as the second-best scorer in the league amount to little.
The thought of Carmelo reaching free agency makes me salivate.
PER: 23.92 (10th)
EWA: 12.1 (6th)
P/M: 379 (5th)
Team Record: 31-22 (8th West)
You're doing something right when Kevin Durant calls you the best pure shooter to ever play the game. While that statement likely needs some tweaking, Stephen Curry is certainly the most prolific volume shooter we've seen in a while.
He leads the league with 3.4 made three-pointers per game and hits at a 15th-best 41.5 percent.
Curry is much more than a deep threat. He's a prolific scorer, fifth best with 24.6 points a night.
He's one of the game's best facilitators; only Chris Paul averages more than his nine assists per game. In fact, Curry is the only NBA player to rank in the top five in both points and assists per game.
And he's an opportunistic defender with 1.7 steals per game, 11th best.
Curry certainly has the individual pedigree, yet somehow the Warriors struggle to enter the West's upper echelon as they cling to a 1.5-game lead on the eighth seed.
Curry's got the clutch genes. He has the most field goals (8) made in the last 30 seconds of a game.
PER: 26.44 (5)
EWA: 11.7 (7)
P/M: -28 (287)
Team Record: 23-29 (12 West)
The Unibrow is making his case for Most Improved Player of the Year. At the peachy age of 20, Anthony Davis increased his scoring by 60 percent from his rookie season. He's grabbing a full two more rebounds (10.1) than a year ago, good for 14th.
More impressively, Davis is already one of the best rim protectors in the league. His 3.1 blocks per game are a half-block better than the next closest guy and his .459 opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim is seventh among players who face more than five such shots a game.
The Pelicans are still a work in progress, especially in such a loaded conference, and the absence of the team's primary ball-handler Jrue Holiday hasn't helped. But in Davis they have one of the best young cornerstones around which to build.
And he's already playing the role of team leader, according to James Herbert of SB Nation:
In New Orleans, Davis is the one yelling, "Team on three!" when the Pelicans huddle up before and after practice. Last week, he organized a screening of "RoboCop" for the team. He's quiet and composed by nature, but he'll take teammates out to dinner and have no problem holding them accountable the next day when they get to work. If they aren't doing a drill as hard as they can, Davis will stop it and make them do it again.
PER: 24.40 (9th)
EWA: 12.7 (5th)
P/M: 330 (12th)
Team Record: 37-18 (4th West)
As discussed in the Honorable Mention section, Blake Griffin is quickly making a case to be called the best player in Los Angeles.
He played a major role in preventing the Clippers from skipping any sort of beat while Paul missed 18 games with a shoulder injury. During that stretch, Griffin averaged 27.5—a full five points better than before Paul's injury—on 55.4 percent shooting. And he did it with consistency, tallying at least 25 points in 13 of those 18 games. He also averaged 4.4 assists, nearly a full assist above his 3.6 career average.
The Clippers went 12-6 in Paul's absence and maintained the fourth spot in the West behind Griffin's improved play on offense. And he's no longer a one-dimensional player who is only capable of dunking lobs from Chris Paul. Compare his short chart from this year and last, and you'll see he's improved his mid-range game quite a bit.
His defense hasn't been too shabby, either. Opponents are posting a 51.6 field-goal percentage at the rim against Griffin. While that isn't an earth-shattering number, it bests teammate DeAndre Jordan and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.
Deadspin's headline, "Clippers Refuse To Deny That Blake Griffin Beat Up Justin Bieber"
PER: 27.62 (3)
EWA: 14.6 (3)
P/M: 340 (8)
Team Record: 25-28 (10th West)
Woeful records have hurt DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis in these rankings so far.
They will not be the death of Kevin Love. He's just too much man.
When you're fourth in the league in scoring (25.8), second in rebounds (13.2) and you hit 112 threes as a power forward, you've earned your spot near the top. He also throws a wicked outlet pass, as you can see above.
Yes, Love's Timberwolves constantly underachieve.
But he is doing everything in his power on a nightly basis, including 16 games with at least 30 points, to stop the losing. Only Durant and LeBron have more such efforts. His 10.1 win shares are third behind the same two basketball gods.
And while he chucks up 18.3 shots a game, Love still dishes out four assists a night—bested only by Josh McRoberts and Joakim Noah for big men. Love's 58.8 true shooting percentage is the second best of his career, second to his first All-Star year in 2011.
The three-point contest. And Wes.
PER: 29.03 (2)
EWA: 17.3 (2)
P/M: 223 (27)
Team Record: 37-14 (2nd East)
Just because he's No. 2 in the first half of one season doesn't change the fact that LeBron James is still the best basketball player on the planet.
That being said, James is not having an all-galaxy season. His PER is under 30 for the second time since 2008-09.
He is, however, becoming a more efficient player as his 30th birthday gets closer. His .651 true shooting percentage is both tops in the league with Kyle Korver and the best of his career. He is second to Durant with 19 games of at least 30 points and 10.3 win shares.
When reports like this one from ESPN (subscription required) surfaced back in January suggesting that James and the rest of the Heat were coasting through the regular season to save gas for the playoffs, he answered by topping 30 points in seven of the next 13 games and came within sniffing distance of triple-doubles.
The Heat's record in those 13 games? 11-2.
And if his buzzer-beater against Phoenix this week doesn't have you convinced that he's a closer, only Kyrie Irving has more points in the last five minutes of games where the lead for either team is no more than five points. And he's got the highest field-goal percentage (.522) of any player with at least 50 attempts in those situations.
So, yes, LeBron has been coasting and still manages to have the second-best statistical season in the league.
POTUS getting closer to jumping on the LeBron GOAT bandwagon.
PER: 30.99 (1)
EWA: 21.0 (1)
P/M: 354 (7)
Record: 43-12 (1st West)
This is a no-brainer. Every analyst covering the NBA knows Kevin Durant is having a special season. And he warned us way back in 2011 at Rucker Park.
He's topped 30 points more times this season than he hasn't. Let that sink in.
Thirty-three times he's scored a third of the nightly average of the entire Chicago Bulls team on his own, and the Thunder have the NBA's best record.
He scores A LOT, and he scores efficiently with a .641 true shooting percentage that trails only LeBron James and Kyle Korver. His .410 clip from three ties him with sharpshooters Wesley Matthews, Klay Thompson and Dragic. Oh, and nobody shoots and makes more free throws than the Slim Reaper.
Incredibly, all of this is happening while Russell Westbrook sits and Serge Ibaka is his No.2 scoring threat. Everyone knows where the ball is going. Yet, somehow Durant has found time to take up Westbrook's role as distributor, dishing a career high 5.5 assists per game while posting his lowest turnover percentage since 2010-11.
And on the other end? He's pretty good there, too. A note from Michael Pina at Sports On Earth:
According to mySynergySports, Durant is one of the 10 best defenders in the league in plays that end in isolation or against a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Opponents shoot just 36.7% on him in the post, and an unsightly 29.7% on spot-up shots when he's the closest defender.
So, yeah, Durant deserves to be called the best player in the NBA this season.
The month of January.