Best NBA Stars Not in the Playoffs

Alec NathanFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2014

Best NBA Stars Not in the Playoffs

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    The 2014 NBA playoffs have already redefined postseason excellence after a thrilling and unprecedented slate of first-round matchups. 

    However, with only eight teams remaining as we head toward the conference finals, we're longing for the days when we could indulge in 13-game slates on weekday evenings and give our remotes a workout. 

    It's been a few weeks since stars like Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love and Anthony Davis laced up their kicks and hit the hardwood, so we decided to take a little trip down memory lane. 

    That said, it's worth noting players who were eliminated in the first roundsuch as Dirk Nowitzki and Stephen Currywere eligible for qualification. In addition, players like Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Al Horford were all omitted because they didn't play more than 40 games this season. 

     

Carmelo Anthony, F, New York Knicks

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    After three straight trips to the postseason, Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks saw their playoff dreams derailed by a slew of injuries and some questionable coaching. 

    But despite the Knicks' futile efforts to reach the playoff party, Anthony had himself quite a season, though few seemed to notice. 

    Whether he was dropping 62 points on the poor Charlotte Bobcats or scoring in new, efficient ways, Anthony helped prop up a Knicks offense that finished the season ranked No. 11 overall in efficiency, per Basketball-Reference

    All told, the 2013-14 campaign ended with Anthony ranked No. 2 overall in scoring average (27.4 points per game) behind Kevin Durant and 0.3 points ahead of LeBron James.  

    Factor in that Anthony posted a player efficiency rating of 24.4—the second-best mark of his career—and shot a career-high 40.2 percent from three, and there was plenty to praise about the volume scorer's 11th professional season. 

    What remains to be seen is whether Anthony will be lacing up his kicks for the Knicks or a more polished title contender next year. 

Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

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    The Golden State Warriors' postseason stay came to a premature end after a thrilling seven-game series with the Los Angeles Clippers, which deprived us of further drooling over Stephen Curry's offensive wizardry. 

    After flashing trademark consistency from beyond the arc in the regular season (42.4 percent shooting from three) while averaging career highs of 24 points and 8.5 assists, Curry helped the Warriors post an offensive rating of 106.9 in the playoffs, per NBA.com

    The NBA's active leader in three-point field-goal percentage, Curry once again displayed why he's the league's quintessential dual-threat point guard, generating 1.01 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). 

    In addition, Curry ranked No. 15 overall, producing 0.95 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and No. 6 overall in scoring off screens (1.19 points per possession), per Synergy

    A selfless presence with the quickest, most refined and easily the most lethal flick of the wrist we've seen in years, Curry and the Dubs figure to be a postseason fixture for years to come.

    The real test will be finding the right coach to guide the franchise to success beyond Round 2.  

Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans

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    If you don't miss the Anthony Davis experience, then you're lying to yourself. 

    Watching Davis evolve from a talented rookie with potential into a bona fide two-way wrecking ball was one of this season's true pleasures. And the fact that we only got to watch him 67 times has us demanding more. 

    Intermittently sidelined by back and ankle injuries, Davis missed 15 games during his sophomore campaign but still managed to burst onto the scene as a potent offensive weapon and defensive force. 

    Not only did Davis lead the league with 2.8 blocks per game, but he averaged a cool 20.8 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 79.1 percent from the free-throw line. 

    What's really terrifying, though, is that Davis demonstrated the ability to step out and hit jump shots with confidence as the season wore on. 

    According to Basketball-Reference, Davis shot 40.9 percent on shots between three and 10 feet and 43.1 percent on shots between 10 and 16 feet. 

    The New Orleans Pelicans face an uphill battle when it comes to qualifying for the postseason, but let's hope we get to see the 'Brow in action beyond mid-April some time before he wreaks havoc on international opponents during the 2016 Olympics. 

Houston's Dynamic Duo

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    A turbulent postseason ride aside, James Harden and Dwight Howard were a pleasure to watch during the first year of their partnership with the Houston Rockets. 

    A prosperous regular season that saw the Rockets finish with a record of 54-28 and an offensive rating that ranked No. 4 overall, per Basketball-Reference, laid the groundwork for more success in the years to come. 

    One of the league's most efficient tandems, Harden and Howard ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on the Rockets in terms of player efficiency rating. And when you're getting to the free-throw line over nine times per game (as both Howard and Harden did), the results are bound to be positive. 

    Houston also dictated pace beautifully under Kevin McHale, generating 96.3 possessions per 48 minutes, a mark that ranked No. 5 overall, according to Basketball-Reference.  

    The real task for Harden and Howard will be figuring out how to establish better chemistry in crunch time.

    When the going got tough against the Portland Trail Blazers, Howard and Harden too often ignored their surroundings and tried to assume the offensive burden themselves, as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding wrote following Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals: 

    Harden's shot-creating disguised a lack of team play, same as it often did in the regular season. And after the last in a long line of lame efforts by Harden on defense allowed Damian Lillard to fly by for a reverse layup late in regulation, Howard had enough. He yelled at Harden right there on the court as a timeout began.

    Establishing continuity won't be easy, but if Harden and Howard can finally click for a full 82 games, the Western Conference will be strapped with another title contender. 

Al Jefferson, C, Charlotte Bobcats

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    Al Jefferson couldn't help send the Charlotte Bobcats off in style before their much-anticipated re-branding this summer, but watching him operate in the low post all season long was a joy. 

    Not only was Jefferson one of four players to average at least 21 points and 10 rebounds during the regular season, according to Basketball-Reference, but he was the only player to do so while shooting better than 50 percent from the field. 

    An offensive dynamo, Jefferson helped the Bobcats reach the postseason for only the second time in franchise history and has the future looking incrementally brighter now that he's setting up shop on the low blocks. 

    What's arguably more impressive, though, is that Jefferson shed his label as a defensive liability under head coach Steve Clifford. 

    Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster has more: 

    Perhaps the most impressive thing Clifford was able to do was to maximize Jefferson defensively. That's an area where he always struggled, but in a strong scheme with some good perimeter defenders next to him, Jefferson was serviceable and the Bobcats were fantastic as a whole this year, posting the fifth-best defensive efficiency in the league, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

    Moving up a rung on the Eastern Conference ladder may prove to be a daunting task, but with Jefferson and Kemba Walker running the show, the franchise appears to be in good hands. 

Kevin Love, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Statistically, the Minnesota Timberwolves possessed the makeup of a playoff team during the 2013-14 regular season. 

    According to Basketball-Reference, the Timberwolves ranked No. 9 and No. 12 overall in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively, numbers that should have resulted in an expected win-loss record of 48-34. 

    But despite their tremendous success on offense, the Timberwolves allowed opponents to shoot 47.1 percent from the field, the second-worst mark the Association had to offer. 

    If we focus on the positives, though, Kevin Love was the overwhelming beneficiary of the Timberwolves' statistically significant campaign, averaging 26.1 points and 9.1 rebounds over the course of 77 games. 

    Not only that, but Love dropped a career-high 4.4 dimes a night this season, putting him in extremely rarefied air. 

    According to Basketball-Reference, Love joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek, Karl Malone, Bob McAdoo, Oscar Robertson, David Robinson and Chris Webber as the only players in history to post those averages in a single season. 

    And if we examine players who recorded those numbers while shooting better than 37 percent from three-point range, Love and Bird are the only two to ever accomplish such a feat, per Basketball-Reference

    One of the most versatile weapons the game has to offer, Love and the Timberwolves will look to end a 10-year playoff drought under new leadership next season. 

Joakim Noah, C, Chicago Bulls

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    The defensive stylings of Joakim Noah netted him 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year honors, but it's his offensive versatility that we miss so much now that the Chicago Bulls have been bounced from the playoffs. 

    A 12.6 point-per-game average on 47.5 percent shooting represented a career high for Noah, who also dished out a staggering 5.4 assists per night. 

    To understand just how phenomenal and unprecedented those numbers are, check out these facts: Noah became just the 14th player in league history to average at least 12 points, 11 rebounds and five dimes for a single season, joining the likes of Kevin Garnett, Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, according to Basketball-Reference

    In addition, Noah was the only player during the 2013-14 season to meet those same benchmarks, per Basketball-Reference, and led all Bulls players in assists with 431. 

    With a tenacity that's only fit for the postseason, expect Noah and the Bulls to make some noise when they rejoin the party again in 2015. 

Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks

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    Dirk Nowitzki didn't have a particularly stellar postseason, averaging 19.1 points on 42.9 percent shooting from the field and .083 percent from three in seven games against the San Antonio Spurs, but forget those pedestrian splits for a second. 

    Nowitzki's regular season deserves to be highlighted for his achievements in efficiency, which were unlike anything we've ever seen from a 35-year-old. 

    Appearing in 80 of a possible 82 games, Nowitzki shot the lights out, averaging 21.7 points while boasting shooting splits of .497/.398/.899. 

    That's right. Nowitzki, the ageless wonder, nearly joined the 50-40-90 club for the second time seven years after making his first appearance in the exclusive shooter's alliance. 

    The good news, according to The Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko, is the German sharpshooters has gone on the record as saying he plans on extending his stay in the NBA for a couple more seasons: 

    So yeah, I still think I’m going to play a couple more years at a high level. And we’ll just have to wait and see, meet with Mark (Cuban) a bunch. I’m not going anywhere for a while. So we’ll figure some stuff out the next couple weeks. But like I said, the year before I was a little worried with the knee injury and not getting going for a long, long time. But this year, I feel a lot better about my body and my health, so I feel like I can still play at a high level for a couple more years.

    With the Mavericks on the rise and primed to make a splash this summer, expect Nowitzki and Co. to be back in the playoff picture next season.  

Phoenix's Backcourt Tandem

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    The biggest surprise of the 2013-14 season was the emergence of Jeff Hornacek's Phoenix Suns, who missed the postseason by a mere game after being edged out by the Dallas Mavericks for the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot. 

    But fear not, for the Suns developed at an extremely accelerated rate thanks to Hornacek's system and the backcourt tandem of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. 

    Entering what figured to be a rebuilding year, questions abounded regarding Bledsoe's ability to slide up to the 2 and play alongside an on-ball presence like Dragic. 

    And while it was easy to be skeptical from a chemistry standpoint, Dragic and Bledsoe passed their first regular-season test with flying colors. 

    Not only did the tandem rank as the team's two leading scorers (Dragic at 20.3 points per game and Bledsoe at 17.7), but they graded out as the Suns' two most efficient players. 

    Dragic was especially steady in the scoring department, shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three. According to Basketball-Reference, the only other players to average at least 20 points on better than 50 percent shooting this season were LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Al Jefferson and Brook Lopez (who appeared in 17 games). 

    With cap space and draft picks at their disposal, expect the Suns to continue their rapid growth during what figures to be a prosperous summer.