NBA Superstar Rankings: James Harden and Joakim Noah Surging Toward the Top

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 15, 2014

NBA Superstar Rankings: James Harden and Joakim Noah Surging Toward the Top

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    March may be a month filled with madness, but it would be sheer insanity if we failed to give the NBA's biggest superstars their due credit. 

    Moving day takes place on Saturday in PGA Tour action, but the Association should consider February and March the league's moving months. As you might expect, there are more than a few superstars taking advantage of the opportunity and leading their teams on to bigger and better things. 

    In the Eastern Conference, Joakim Noah has spearheaded a fantastic run by the Chicago Bulls, dominating teams with his versatile offense and incredible defensive presence. In the NBA's stronger conference, James Harden has exploded in the scoring column, and he's pacing a scorching Houston Rockets squad. 

    You can expect to see each superstar prominently featured, but they won't be the only ones. 

    As I'm still holding down the fort for Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes, it's only fair that I afford him the opportunity to explain the criteria, which was also made clear in the last edition

    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.

    This isn't just a ranking of the best players in the league. You can find that elsewhere, so don't just immediately write something off as incorrect when it initially puzzles you. 

    These rankings are about superstardom, especially when it's come in recent days and weeks. Nothing less, and nothing more. 

     

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come courtesy of Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of March 14. 

10. Al Jefferson (Previous Ranking: Unranked)

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    Team: Charlotte Bobcats

    Position: C

    Age: 29

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks, 22.8 PER

    Can we please stop collectively ignoring Al Jefferson and the Charlotte Bobcats? 

    Some people are giving Big Al the credit he deserves, but the center's fantastic season has gone largely unnoticed by more casual fans. The 'Cats are still too associated with losing, even if they moved to 32-34 after Jefferson's 25 points and 16 rebounds led Charlotte to a victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

    It's not often that someone outshines Kevin Love, but that's exactly what Jefferson just did. 

    "They brought me here to be a double-double guy, a 20-10 guy, and I'm just living up to my contract," he told The Associated Press' Steve Reed after the game (via the Star Tribune). That's exactly what he's done, and then some. 

    This year's biggest post-hoc All-Star snub just keeps putting up insane numbers and helping the Bobcats gain relevance as they fight for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. 

    Overlook Jefferson at your own peril. 

    Honorable Mention: Kevin Love, Paul George, Goran Dragic, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Howard, the San Antonio Spurs

9. Stephen Curry (Previous Ranking: No. 5)

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    Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: PG

    Age: 26

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 23.2 PER

    It's a shame that a strained right quad has to keep Stephen Curry contained. He's playing more limited minutes and failing to put up the same sort of numbers we've come to expect from the man Mark Jackson touted as a legitimate All-NBA First-Team candidate. 

    During the six games prior to the Golden State Warriors' Friday night matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he's averaged only 14.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per contest while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 28.6 percent beyond the three-point arc. 

    Will Curry find his form? Most certainly, though that's largely dependent on his health and how much time Jackson lets him spend on the court. He certainly looked like he was while carrying the Dubs in the second half of the losing effort against Cleveland. 

    However, I have no choice but to move Curry down in these rankings, seeing as they're centered around recent play and are intentionally reactive. Even though the Dubs are rolling through a fairly difficult portion of their 2013-14 schedule, the baby-faced assassin still hasn't been getting his personal job done each and every night. 

    Don't fret, though, as more performances like his 27-point, eight-dime outing on Friday night will have him rising right back up the rankings. 

8. Russell Westbrook (Previous Ranking: Unranked)

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: PG

    Age: 25

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.1 blocks, 24.2 PER

    It's safe to say Russell Westbrook is back. 

    Now that he's been fully integrated into the lineup, the wins are coming for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Plus, the cries of despair when Westbrook had just returned and OKC was losing were largely overblown, seeing as that was more correlation than causation. 

    During his last five outings, the explosive floor general recorded the second-fastest triple-double in NBA history, exploded for 36 points, nine rebounds and nine assists (albeit in a loss); came up three rebounds and two dimes shy of a second trip-dub and finished with 29 points and nine assists in only 23 minutes against the Los Angeles Lakers. 

    That's domination. 

    A 2-of-10 three-point performance in the first meetup with LAL notwithstanding, Westbrook's shot from the perimeter is looking better than ever. And if that's a real development, it's just one more weapon in an already loaded arsenal. 

7. Anthony Davis (Previous Ranking: No. 6)

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    Scott Threlkeld/Associated Press

    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 21

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.9 blocks, 26.7 PER

    If only the New Orleans Pelicans could stay healthy and surround Anthony Davis with a better supporting cast...

    That's one of my two gripes about the season "The Brow" has enjoyed down by the bayou. The other is simply that he turned 21 in early March, meaning we can no longer marvel at the sensational output of a player so young he can't legally enjoy everything Bourbon Street has to offer. 

    But when it comes to Davis' play, there's nothing to complain about. 

    He just continues developing as an offensive threat, and his latest performance saw him drop 36 points against the Portland Trail Blazers. Over his last five outings, the young big man is now averaging a scorching 30.8 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 3.0 blocks and 0.8 steals per game while shooting 56.6 percent from the field. 

    Let's put that in perspective. 

    Throughout the 2013-14 season, here's the complete list of players who have shot over 50 percent from the field while recording at least 30 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks in one game: 

    • Anthony Davis
    • Dwight Howard
    • Al Jefferson

    That's it. 

    Now Davis has built up those averages by dominating in different areas every night, but that's exactly what makes him so unbelievably impressive. He manages to excel no matter what's asked of him, and he makes plenty of contributions that go beyond the box score, even if that stat sheet still shows a pretty remarkable output. 

6. Joakim Noah (Previous Ranking: Unranked)

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Position: C

    Age: 29

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 12.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.5 blocks, 20.0 PER

    Say hello to the newest MVP candidate. 

    Remember, there's a big distinction between "MVP candidate" and "MVP favorite," as the former only intimates that a player belongs in the conversation and should be prominently featured in one of the five spots on the ballot. 

    And as you might expect from an MVP candidate, Joakim Noah is also in the mix for the All-NBA First Team's center spot. Here's K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune on the subject

    Whether Dwight Howard or Joakim Noah is named first-team All-NBA at center is one of those media-driven angles with which coaches and players typically don't concern themselves.

    But given that whether Noah earns the honor has financial ramifications for the Bulls, its importance is more than just a tidy way to preview Thursday night's matchup with Howard and the Rockets.

    It was a matchup that Noah thoroughly dominated. 

    He recorded 13 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists during the blowout victory, and he was a major part of the effort that kept D12 relatively quiet. Consider it the latest notch in his belt, one that's getting rather full after his dominant second half. 

    Noah is the leader on both ends of the court, and he also functions as the heart and soul of these surging Chicago Bulls. 

5. Carmelo Anthony (Previous Ranking: No. 2)

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Team: New York Knicks

    Position: SF/PF

    Age: 29

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 25.0 PER

    Carmelo Anthony is dropping down a few spots in the rankings, but it's not because his level of play has declined. The soon-to-be free agent has continued to post stellar numbers across the board, and he's playing some of the best basketball of his career. 

    However, he's been surpassed by two players on teams that are actually winning. 

    Frankly, it's impressive that 'Melo is the only player in the top five who's playing on a team that wouldn't make the playoffs at this stage of the season. Even though the Knicks are on a five-game stretch of undefeated play, they're still a ways back of the Atlanta Hawks in the race for the Eastern Conference's final playoff berth. 

    That counts for something. It has to. 

    Part of being a superstar is winning games, and that's increasingly important as the season progresses. If 'Melo's teammates had been hitting shots throughout the year and the Knicks had a competent point guard on the roster, this particular forward might trail only Kevin Durant and LeBron James in the MVP voting. 

    But alas, that's not the case. 

4. Blake Griffin (Previous Ranking: No. 4)

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PF

    Age: 24

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.5 blocks, 24.0 PER

    The Los Angeles Clippers, hard as this may be to believe, are no longer Chris Paul's team.

    Maybe.

    Honestly, it just depends on the night at this point.

    B/R's Zach Buckley wrote a fantastic piece on the subject, and the result isn't actually all that important. Considering CP3 has long been heralded as a top-five player, the very fact that this is now a question is telling in and of itself. 

    Blake Griffin, as you may have guessed from the theme of this slide, is the man threatening to wrest away control from his point guard, though he's doing it in a manner that's extremely conducive to success. The big man's emergence as a focal point of the offensive schemes has opened up all sorts of opportunities for the Clippers, and he's the main reason LAC is still in the hunt for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. 

    Even more impressively, Griffin isn't slowing down now that CP3 has been fully reintegrated into the Los Angeles offense. 

    Over his last five games, the 24-year-old Griffin is averaging 26.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.8 steals per contest, and he's doing so while shooting 57.6 percent from the field. But let's run it back even further. 

    Since Dec. 26, LAC's first game without Paul, Griffin is putting up 27.4 points per contest. 

    Not too shabby, huh?

3. James Harden (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: SG

    Age: 24

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 22.3 PER

    James Harden was only an honorable mention during the last edition of the superstar rankings, and that came back on the final day of January. 

    Since then, the bearded shooting guard has taken his game to the proverbial next level, and the Houston Rockets have acted accordingly. 

    While spurring his team on to a 13-4 record, Harden has averaged 26.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game, and that's including an eight-point letdown against the suffocating defense of the Chicago Bulls. He's shot 48.1 percent from the field, 40.8 percent beyond the arc (on 7.1 attempts per contest) and 86.6 percent from the charity stripe (on 8.4 attempts each game). 

    That's good for a true shooting percentage of 63.8, which would be the No. 4 mark in the entire league—trailing only Kyle Korver, LeBron James and Kevin Durant—if he'd maintained it throughout the entire season. 

    But it's not just the numbers Harden has recorded so much as the manner in which he's produced them. The 24-year-old 2-guard has come up big down the stretch against elite teams, has played electrifying offense and has bearded out on a regular basis. 

    Is he the No. 3 player in basketball? Nope, but that's not what this is about. 

2. LeBron James (Previous Ranking: No. 3)

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Miami Heat

    Position: SF/PF

    Age: 29

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 26.8 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.3 blocks, 29.2 PER

    Mask or no mask, LeBron James has been a dominant player. 

    Quite frankly, it's going to take a lot to move King James out of the No. 2 spot, simply because he remains the NBA's biggest draw. And even if he's trailing Kevin Durant in the MVP race, he remains the best player in the world when motivated. 

    This somnambulant state is understandable to some extent. The Miami Heat have a huge lead on the non-elite teams in the Eastern Conference, and the Indiana Pacers are showing signs of weakness that could make home-court advantage irrelevant.

    But James has been playing lethargic basketball. He's averaging a career low in blocks per game, which underscores the lack of defensive effort he's exhibiting on a nightly basis. 

    The word "sleepwalking" has been used to describe this Heat team on multiple occasions, and that's for good reason. 

    However, LeBron is still pretty dominant, regardless of whether he's putting forth 100 percent effort on a nightly basis. 

    His numbers are nothing to sniff at, and the fact remains that he's still averaging nearly 27 points per game while shooting over 57 percent from the field. In the history of the NBA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Adrian Dantley and Shaquille O'Neal are the only other players to do that. 

1. Kevin Durant (Previous Ranking: No. 1)

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: SF

    Age: 25

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 31.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.8 blocks, 30.3 PER

    Even with Russell Westbrook back in midseason form, Kevin Durant is going to get his. 

    Over his last five games, KD has topped the 40-point barrier for the 10th and 11th times, and he's averaging a mind-boggling 34.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists per contest while shooting a 52.9/41.0/79.4 line. 

    Those numbers aren't even fair. 

    If the MVP race has been a seesaw, one that alternates between boosting LeBron James and Durant up higher into the air, it's the latter's turn to look down on his biggest individual rival. And with only the closing stretch left to play, it's starting to seem unlikely that changes again, though a sensational run from LeBron could prove that statement a stupid one. 

    But the closing portion of the season hasn't yet come to pass, which means this is actually pretty simple. 

    Durant has been the superstar during the 2013-14 campaign. Putting anyone else in the No. 1 spot, even if these are subjective rankings, would just be objectively wrong after his latest stretch of dominance.