The NBA's Best 10 Players Since 2014 All-Star Break
The stretch run has begun.
Some teams are focused on making the playoffs, while others look to improve their records and secure home-court advantage. But for these squads to really have a chance, they must rely on their players to get the job done on the court.
The NBA's superstars are expected to perform well, but this list will focus on players exceeding expectations or exceeding their first-half play of this season. You might recognize some big names, but some players have become major pieces of their team's second-half push.
Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic
Tobias Harris is back in business.
He only gets an honorable mention on this list, though, as it's production we've seen from him before. Harris has averaged 18.2 points on 52.1 percent shooting since the All-Star break, as well as 6.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals.
It's a far cry from his first-half numbers of 13.7 points on 42.6 percent shooting, so it's good to see him back on track for the rebuilding Orlando Magic.
In his time with the team to close out last season, Harris put up 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds, so it isn't exactly anything new or surprising. But it's still noteworthy nonetheless.
Honorable Mention: Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers might be without LaMarcus Aldridge, but they have Nicolas Batum.
Most of his terrific play has come in March, but Batum has become a rebounding machine. He's averaging his usual scoring average, but he's bumped his rebounding from 6.5 during the season to 10.7 per game since All-Star weekend.
For this month, Batum's snatching 13.3 rebounds per game, tying for second with center DeMarcus Cousins. Batum's lanky frame and incredible 7'4" wingspan has allowed him to outhustle some of the league's best rebounding teams.
Batum only gets a mention, though, as he's only dominating on the glass. His scoring, distributing and defense have all been right on par, but his work on the boards shouldn't go unnoticed.
10. Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks
Tyson Chandler could have easily been swapped out for one of our honorable mentions, but his play has been that much more important to his team.
The New York Knicks are on a mission to secure the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, now just three-and-a-half games back from the Atlanta Hawks. And Chandler has played his heart out.
His best play hasn't come during the Knicks' win streak, but that shouldn't discount how hard he's tried when the team was losing. Chandler's snatched 13.2 rebounds since the break, up from his regular-season average of 8.8 boards.
He had two 20-plus rebound games, almost three with an 18-board performance against the Detroit Pistons on March 3.
Chandler has missed two of New York's last three games (personal absence), but there shouldn't be any reason for his rebounding dominance to halt. He's the Knicks' best player outside of Carmelo Anthony, and has been playing like it.
Again, his play mirrors that of Batum and should probably be his normal average. But it's still been integral to returning Chandler's team to the level of toughness and competitiveness needed for the stretch run.
9. Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers are in the midst of an 11-game win streak, and Matt Barnes has stepped up.
Before we get too excited, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have all stepped up, but Barnes is more of an afterthought on this team. That's no disrespect to him, but bigger names like Paul or Griffin or Jamal Crawford would be recognized before his.
Even so, Barnes has reversed a subpar first half of the season that saw him shooting under 40 percent. Since the break, he's scored 14.8 points per game while shooting 53.2 percent.
Barnes is also knocking down 2.5 three-point field goals per game, converting on 40.7 percent on the perimeter. He's also snatching 4.7 rebounds and dishing 2.6 assists.
He's better known for his feisty defense and outside shooting as a reserve, but Barnes has been playing like a starting small forward should. The Clippers can add another dimension to the team if he continues, which would be highly useful during the postseason.
In any case, Barnes has been a catalyst for L.A's strong play as of late.
8. Trevor Ariza, Washington Wizards
Trevor Ariza might have been nothing other than an expiring contract for the Washington Wizards this season. But he's been lights out from long range lately.
To be fair, Ariza's best performances have come against weaker teams, but his play has helped separate the Wizards from the pack. Washington is looking to be a playoff team and is well on the way with the No. 5 seed in the East, and Ariza's contributions have been instrumental.
He's averaged 16.7 points since the break, shooting 50.9 percent and an unconscious 50 percent from three-point range. Ariza's numbers before that aren't much different, with him scoring 14.4 points on 44.2 percent and 39.9 percent from the field and from three, respectively.
His improved play has really been from downtown, going as far as averaging 5.2 made field goals from long range over a four-game span. Much like Barnes, Ariza's play has been critical to his team's success.
He's clearly on a hot streak, but his establishment as a knock-down shooter will be critical going forward.
7. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Let's face it, James Harden has been one of the NBA's best 10 players all season.
But this listing is recognizing the league's best since the break, and Harden's play has cemented the Houston Rockets as a force to be reckoned with going forward.
His averages haven't been much different (23.9 points to 27.6 points), but there's been a significant improvement in a few noteworthy areas. Harden's upped his percentages and playmaking, and both have been integral to Houston's recent streak:
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The Rockets are just 8-5 since All-Star weekend, but the team is in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Before that, Harden was a catalyst in his team's success.
He dropped 41 points, 10 rebounds and six assists against the Trail Blazers on March 9, in addition to a 21-point, 11-assist night against the Miami Heat a week earlier.
Harden is arguably the league's best shooting guard, and his play in the second half of the season could see him end that discussion. If his play of late is any indication, it shouldn't even be a conversation worth having.
6. Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets
Much like Harden, Ty Lawson's play since the break hasn't been over the top. But it's been enough to push him to a higher proverbial pedestal in the NBA world.
Lawson has averaged 19.0 points and 10.6 assists in the second half, as well as 2.0 steals and just 3.6 turnovers. He also seems to have found his stroke once more, increasing his productivity from three from 34 percent to 41.2 percent.
He's been injured for much of the season, as the Denver Nuggets have spiralled downward and are just 4-4 despite Lawson's numbers. He did lead his team to victories over the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat, but still played superbly in losses.
It's great to see a talent like Lawson back healthy and exceeding expectations, making a case for himself as one of the league's best distributors in the second half of the season. He did so in the first half, but this stretch has only confirmed that.
5. Tyreke Evans, New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans may have lost point guard Jrue Holiday to injury, but it's been a blessing in disguise.
Enter Tyreke Evans.
The Pelicans' acquisition of Evans was questioned, as his ball-dominant style of play clashes with that of Holiday and fellow Pelican Eric Gordon. All three have needed the ball to be successful throughout their careers, thus the grouping of the trio had expected results.
Evans averaged 12.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists prior to the All-Star break, shooting 41.1 percent and a miserable 14.9 percent from long range.
Since then, the 6'6" point guard, shooting guard, small forward swingman has put up considerably better numbers, with his averages this month being on an All-Star-caliber level.
Evans is averaging 22.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.6 assists in March, shooting 52.7 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from beyond the arc, which has played a big role for New Orleans. The team has only gone 4-4 in that span, but it still deserves a nod of appreciation for Evans' individual effort.
Normally it'd be much higher on the list, given the apparent reversal of Evans' play. But it remains something we've seen from him in the past, when he had a 20-5-5 rookie campaign. Evans' production went down each consecutive year, but if he can keep this trend alive, he looks to be back to old habits.
And that's good news for Pelicans fans.
4. Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats
Al Jefferson probably should have been an All-Star.
The Charlotte Bobcats center has dropped 25.6 points and 10.0 rebounds per game in the second half of the season, leading his team to a 10-4 record. Jefferson's 20.1 points per game in the first half were already noteworthy, but his play of late has vaulted him to a new stratosphere.
His 38 points and 19 rebounds against the Miami Heat on March 3 were overshadowed by LeBron James' career-best 61 points, but he then dropped 34 points and eight rebounds against the Indiana Pacers two nights later in an upset win.
The Bobcats are on a four-game win streak thanks in large part to Jefferson's stellar play, and they doggedly in the playoff hunt. Teams like the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers are looking to break in, but Jefferson has kept Charlotte ahead.
3. Kenneth Faried, Denver Nuggets
Kenneth Faried, much like his teammate in Ty Lawson, has tried his best to help his team win, but to no avail. But his play has been noticed.
Faried averaged a solid 10.4 points and 7.6 rebounds before All-Star weekend, shooting 54.4 percent from the field and 58.8 percent from the free-throw line.
Since the break, he's hit a new stride which I'm sure Nuggets fans hope continues. Faried's 21.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in March are beyond anything we've seen before from him, with his previous career-high average being 11.5 points per game last season.
That isn't to say we'll see Faried head into next season averaging 20-plus points, but it's a surprising improvement from an unexpected player.
He's a bouncy and athletic forward, renowned more for his rebounding and dunks than his scoring. Most of his points have come at the rim, with 162 of his 191 field-goal attempts coming in the lane, and he's shooting 64.5 to show for it, per NBA.com.
He's had at least 20 points in the last three games, including a 24-point, 10-rebound showing against the Heat on March 14. One big improvement is Faried's foul shooting, which has increased from 58.8 percent to 69.5 percent.
Faried and Lawson have been on a string, and Denver will have a terrific two-man tandem going forward. It's a shame to see it this late, with the team seemingly out of the playoff race, but there's always next season to look forward to.
For now, Faried's stellar play is enjoyable to see.
2. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis is the NBA's next superstar.
A dozen or so games aren't really enough evidence to support that statement, but Davis has been superb in the second half of the season.
New Orleans isn't winning a ton of games because of his play, but that hasn't stopped him from outplaying the competition.
Davis' 26.9 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in March has been right on par with what his potential was measured to be. His best games have come against weaker teams, such as his 40-point, 21-rebound night against the Boston Celtics on March 16, but that doesn't discount his efforts.
Davis still dropped 36 points on Portland on March 14 and 29 points on the Memphis Grizzlies two nights before, but it's been his play as a whole that's netted him the second-best spot on the list. His play, while unexpected, was somewhat anticipated given his progression.
Davis is very close to taking over as the league's best big man. He isn't quite there yet, but this recent stretch of games has him approaching the line very quickly.
1. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
It's a bold statement to make, but Noah's recent play has been extraordinary.
He's put up 14.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game since the break, but has also dished out 7.0 assists per game. Noah's playmaking and ball-handling were once his most underrated skills, but have been on full display over the past few weeks.
His assist-per-game average jumped to 7.9 during the month of March, where Noah has dropped two triple-doubles and come close to four in the past two games (coming just short with nine and eight assists, respectively).
His passion, intensity and competitiveness have become a staple of this Bulls team, which he's led to a 10-4 record since the All-Star break. Victories over Dallas, Miami and San Antonio have been concretely based on Chicago's spectacular defense, but Noah's leadership at the helm has piqued MVP consideration.
He wouldn't let that be the case though, as he confirmed: "We have one MVP, and that’s Derrick Rose," per Chuck Swirsky of Bulls.com.
He's drawn effulgent praise, including the aforementioned MVP chants and even a nod from Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, per ESPN.com, who said:
He should be defensive player of the year. He's done a great job with these guys. They've been winning a lot just on his energy and effort, his kind of determination and toughness. Those are all qualities everybody appreciates.
Davis' play could have easily gotten him the top spot, but Noah's spirit and desire to win has taken over Chicago basketball and the NBA. All the players listed have exceeded expectations or played better than usual, but Noah has become bigger than basketball since All-Star weekend.
Whether it's been his defense, hustle, rebounding or passing, Noah has outplayed everyone in every category. His playmaking is rarely seen from someone at his size or position, but it's been on full display.
The Bulls will be a total menace in the postseason, and that can be directly attributed to Noah, with the effect he's had on his team and his all-around brilliance in the season's second half.