Projecting the Top 20 Players for the 2014-15 NBA Season
For the most part, rosters are starting to take shape across the NBA's vast landscape of 30 teams.
Sure, there are stragglers like Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe, prominent players who have yet to be locked into a certain organization for the start of the 2014-15 season, but most have found their homes, whether in new locations or their old stomping grounds.
And that can only mean one thing: It's time for the mid-offseason re-ranking of the league's best players.
These rankings are meant to serve as previews for the upcoming campaign, not recaps of the past season. What came to pass in 2013-14 is vitally important, as it's the only numerical basis we have for the vast majority of the NBA's players, but so too is growth, situation and so much more.
Young players are aided by expected growth, as are those who have been paired up with new teammates who will help them find success. Age-related declines and the loss of teammates who benefited a player (or the addition of those who will take away touches and minutes) are accounted for as well.
Where do they fit in? Who's at the very top? Which young guns are on the rise?
Ready, set, debate!
20. Goran Dragic
Team: Phoenix Suns
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.4 PER
Slithery as an oil-slicked snake, Goran Dragic is primed to continue serving as both the lead guard and a devastating one-man fast break in Jeff Hornacek's uptempo offensive system.
The Phoenix Suns have played with two point guards on the court quite often, and they're bound to continue doing exactly that in 2014-15. Even if Bledsoe isn't retained and goes elsewhere as a restricted free agent, Isaiah Thomas and Tyler Ennis are both there to complement this dynamic combo guard, one who can thrive at both the 1 and 2.
2013-14 was Dragic's breakout season, but there's no reason the 28-year-old can't continue improving, especially now that he's gained comfort in a featured role and will be kept fresher by the depth of the desert-based backcourt. If he hadn't worn down at the end of last season, his numbers likely would've been even more impressive.
19. James Harden
Team: Houston Rockets
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 23.5 PER
James Harden is an absolutely incredible offensive player, but until he isn't giving fodder for anti-highlight reels of his defensive ineffectiveness each and every night, he can't be one of the NBA's truly elite players. He's still not far off—I mean, just look at those 25.4 points and 6.1 assists per game, which come on efficient shooting numbers—but he's not there.
Will that change in 2014-15?
On one hand, Harden has already adjusted to the energy expenditures that come with being a featured scoring option. It's unlikely he suddenly gains the stamina necessary to play both ends of the court, especially because the Houston Rockets aren't particularly deep.
However, Trevor Ariza's presence should help.
The newly acquired small forward is a better defender than Chandler Parsons, which should both mask Harden's shortcomings and inspire him to exert more effort. Ariza made a mark in Washington as a locker room leader, and perhaps his attitude can be infectious going forward.
18. Paul George
Team: Indiana Pacers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 20.2 PER
Without Lance Stephenson accompanying him on the court, Paul George is going to have his work cut out for him.
Not only did No. 24 come back to Earth after a blazing start to his 2013-14 campaign, but he also fared much better when Born Ready was drawing defensive attention and helping serve as a second player on the Indiana Pacers who could actually create offense.
Here's the breakdown of his per-36-minute numbers with Stephenson on and off the court, as shown by NBA.com's statistical databases:
That doesn't bode well for George's ability to continue building up his superstar status now that Stephenson has bolted for the Charlotte Hornets and been replaced by Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles. Not even remotely.
As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes explains, that's problematic for a team that already struggled on offense:
Indiana's greatest weakness—both with Stephenson and without him—is its inability to score efficiently. Only the Philadelphia 76ers—who were, without exaggeration, actively trying to lose games—posted a lower offensive rating than the Pacers after the All-Star break last year, per NBA.com.
George, a player whose offense is the shakiest part of his game, is now the unquestioned leader of a scoring attack that just lost its most dynamic creator. Yikes.
17. Joakim Noah
Team: Chicago Bulls
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.5 blocks, 20.1 PER
Joakim Noah should continue to play some of the NBA's best defense next season, but he won't have nearly as much offensive responsibility.
With Derrick Rose back on the court, he'll no longer serve as a distributor as often as he did last year. Instead, he'll focus his energies on rebounding and the less glamorous end to an even greater extent than he did while winning Defensive Player of the Year. Plus, Pau Gasol is bound to draw touches away from him, as both players are capable of serving as offensive hubs from most spots within the half-court set.
Unfortunately, though, those aren't the only worries.
Noah broke down at the end of the year, held back by the injuries to his lower extremities. Even if he's fully recovered from his offseason knee surgery, it's hard to imagine him holding up throughout the entire year.
Tom Thibodeau allowed Noah to play 35.3 minutes per game in 2013-14 and 36.8 minutes per contest the year before, and he doesn't exactly get a break during the playoffs. Now that he's 29 years old, it's easy to see his motor slowing down a few ticks going forward.
16. Damian Lillard
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 18.7 PER
Damian Lillard grew up during the playoffs.
The 24-year-old point guard averaged 22.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game against his postseason competition, and those numbers came paired with a 43.9 percent clip from the field and 38.6 percent shooting beyond the arc. Sensational marks, especially when Lillard also thrived in the clutch, most notably with his series-winning dagger against the Houston Rockets.
Lillard is a leader now, and he's one of the best sources of offense at his position. Throughout his sophomore campaign, though, he still failed to develop on defense, at least to the extent that's needed.
He runs into screens as though they're brick walls, and even the simplest offensive sets can give him trouble when he's trying to stick with his mark. Until that changes, he's going to have trouble functioning as one of the NBA's uber-elite floor generals, settling for the tier a little ways below.
At 24, there's still plenty of time for him to change that.
15. Derrick Rose
Team: Chicago Bulls
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 15.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks, 9.8 PER
What in the world do we do with Derrick Rose?
By the time he starts playing games again for the Chicago Bulls, this ranking could prove to be roughly 12 spots too low. It could also be 30 too high.
Rose wasn't very impressive in between his last two major injuries, shooting a terrible percentage and playing without much confidence on either end of the court. He looked and moved like Rose, but he just couldn't get the ball to drop through the net with any sort of consistency.
He's had plenty of time to heal, both physically and mentally, but this is a 25-year-old point guard coming off multiple crippling injuries who hasn't played meaningful basketball in years. All we can do at this point is speculate, which is why he's being placed in between two de facto tiers within the rankings.
With Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, Mike Dunleavy and Nikola Mirotic, Rose has an incredible support system, one that should be able to lessen his workload and ease him back into the swing of things. There's enough offense for the Bulls to remain elite even if he's not doing much at the beginning of the season.
However, even with his stellar pedigree, the depth around him and the advantage of youth, he's still a complete unknown.
14. John Wall
Team: Washington Wizards
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 19.6 PER
The world tends to focus on John Wall's offense, and deservedly so. He's a fantastic scorer, one who can get to the rim in the blink of an eye, and he continues to excel as a distributor. Few players in the NBA are better at hitting teammates in the corners while caught in traffic.
However, it's a huge mistake to overlook his defensive excellence. After all, that's what allowed Wall to submit such an excellent campaign during his fourth go-around with the Washington Wizards.
The Wiz allowed 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Wall was on the court last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and 82games.com shows that he held opposing floor generals to a PER of 15.8.
However, the numbers can't show off the full extent of his defensive excellence, as defense isn't played in a vacuum.
"He's not much of a shooting threat, but his terrorizing defense is a threat to all shooters," wrote ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss in January. "If Curry dazzled playoff audiences with 3-pointers from all angles, Wall might loudly announce his playoff arrival with steals and swats that defy geometry."
And Wall himself is well aware of the necessary commitment to the defensive end, as he told Michael Lee of The Washington Post in a December conversation:
I think I’ve showed spurts of great defense at times, but don’t do it enough. For me to be the player that I want to be, to be a superstar, or all-star in this league, you do both ends on a nightly basis. That’s something I’m really focusing my mind on, watching film on that more and trying to be consistent and doing a better job on that side.
It showed throughout 2013-14, and it will once more next season.
13. DeMarcus Cousins
Team: Sacramento Kings
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks, 26.2 PER
It's hard to imagine, but the Sacramento Kings may be handing DeMarcus Cousins even more offensive responsibility going forward.
Swapping Isaiah Thomas (off to the Phoenix Suns in a sign-and-trade) for Darren Collison is a downgrade at point guard, and that just puts more pressure on Boogie to finally get the Kings out of the basement. He'll be helped by an improved Ben McLemore, as well as a newly arrived Nik Stauskas, but this is still his team until another star either comes to town or develops internally.
Question is, will that prevent him from continuing to improve on the defensive end of the court?
Cousins has the ability to become a quality defender—not a standout stopper, but a quality one—as soon as he's willing and able to put in the necessary effort. He's matured throughout his NBA career, and that seems like a distinct possibility, but only if the rest of the Sac-Town offense can help him out on a nightly basis.
At times, Boogie looks like the NBA's best center, but he hasn't performed consistently enough on both ends to hold down that status for good.
This year, he's capable of changing that.
12. LaMarcus Aldridge
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 21.8 PER
LaMarcus Aldridge is going to fall in love with the Portland Trail Blazers' management if they actually manage to provide him with some legitimate backups during the 2014-15 season.
Last year, Rip City had one of the league's worst second units, and it forced each and every starter into spending too much time on the court. Aldridge, for example, played 36.2 minutes per game while carrying heavy offensive burdens, and it was the sixth season in a row he'd been on the court for at least three-quarters of the average contest.
Well, things should be a bit different this year.
Portland hasn't acquired any second-unit show-stoppers, but the acquisition of Chris Kaman, as well as the growth of Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson, should at least allow the aging Aldridge to get the time on the pine he both deserves and needs to remain so effective.
The Blazers are continuing to build something special, and Aldridge will keep functioning as the beating heart next year.
11. Kevin Love
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 27.0 PER
Kevin Love has enjoyed a remarkably quiet offseason.
Technically, he hasn't said much at all about his situation, even if the Internet has run rampant with speculation about his future. Will he become a member of the Golden State Warriors? Will he team up with LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers? Could he go to the Boston Celtics or Chicago Bulls?
No one knows.
For now, Love is still on the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he could very well remain when the season begins, at least until Flip Saunders decides to deal him just prior to the trade deadline. Of course, it's just as likely he gets traded tomorrow.
Regardless of his landing spot, Love is a unique talent—a dominant rebounder who can rain in three-pointers while throwing the best outlet passes since Wes Unseld or Bill Walton. He's a ridiculously good basketball player...on one end of the court.
Love, still only 25 years old, has time to become a smarter defender, but the clock is ticking on that pursuit. It's already abundantly clear he'll never have the physical tools he needs to become a two-way force.
10. Blake Griffin
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 24.0 PER
We all know about Blake Griffin's high-flying act, one in which he posterizes people and terrorizes opponents around the rim. We all know that his offensive game is developing, primarily when it comes to his mid-range shooting and his ugly-but-effective work in the post.
But what gets overlooked are the defensive strides he made under the tutelage of Doc Rivers, who should have him looking even better on the less glamorous end now that he's in Year 2 of his Los Angeles Clippers tenure.
Griffin has short arms for a man his size, which limits his ability to morph into a shot-blocker, but his rotations got smarter and more effective in 2013-14. He actually started trying on defense, which allowed him to counter post moves and read pick-and-roll/pop situations with increased effectiveness.
Much as some hate to admit it, he's becoming a well-rounded player, one who does far more than create highlights that will show up on SportsCenter or go viral on YouTube.
9. Kobe Bryant
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 10.7 PER
Much like Derrick Rose's placement, this is just a guess.
Kobe Bryant played in only six games during his return from the brutal Achilles injury, and he wasn't particularly good during those outings. His shooting was off the mark, and he turned the ball over 5.7 times per contest, which did quite a number on his overall efficiency.
However, the Mamba should be raring to go during what looks like his penultimate season. He's had plenty of time to recover from the latest malady, and he's going to have no shortage of opportunities to control the ball given the Lake Show's lack of consistent offensive options.
Father Time may be a worthy opponent, but doubting Kobe is usually a foolish endeavor, one that results in embarrassment for those involved.
As was the case with the Chicago Bulls floor general, this ranking could easily prove to be way off, with Kobe rising or falling rather significantly once the season gets underway.
8. Dwight Howard
Team: Houston Rockets
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.8 blocks, 21.4 PER
Love him or hate him (and it seems as though far too many people fall onto the latter side these days), you can't really make a convincing argument that Dwight Howard is anything less than dominant.
He's one of the NBA's premier rebounders, anchored a defense that had guards constantly letting people into his paint and made incredibly efficient contributions on the offensive end. Regardless of how the points come about, scoring 18.3 per game on 59.1 percent shooting is not something to sniff at.
D12's post moves are a bit underrated, nowhere near as bad as some make them out to be. Though he doesn't have a wide arsenal, he still scored 0.77 points per possession in post-up situations last year, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), which gave him the No. 128 mark in the NBA.
That's by no means the mark of a standout, but it's also not one indicative of a complete dearth of effective moves.
If he would just be less reliant on his back-to-the-basket game and focus more on his dominant pick-and-roll work, his overall offensive game would look even better than it already does. Plus, his post-up numbers would be even better, as he'd be picking and choosing the right opportunities against positive matchups.
On a good day, Dwight is fully capable of carrying the Houston Rockets to victory nearly by himself. Even on a bad day, he's still a player who's able to anchor the defense and make positive contributions.
The combination leaves him as the best center in the league, though some of the young guns will be coming for his crown this year.
7. Russell Westbrook
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 24.7 PER
Russell Westbrook was unleashed during the playoffs.
During the Oklahoma City Thunder's ill-fated run to the Western Conference Finals and a matchup with the buzz saw that was the San Antonio Spurs, the dynamic point guard averaged a jaw-dropping 26.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game, although he did shoot only 42 percent from the field and 28 percent beyond the arc.
With Westbrook, the good is always accompanied by some bad and some ugly, but usually the first part trumps the latter two by a rather large margin. Such was the case during the postseason, as the healthy point guard earned a stellar 24.9 PER, according to Basketball-Reference.com, while boasting the league's highest usage rate.
It'll be impossible for Westbrook to keep up that frenetic pace during the 2014-15 season, though there's no denying just how much desire and talent he has at his disposal. Only injuries kept him from asserting himself as a top-10 player last year, and he proved how ridiculous that was during the playoffs.
Now, the rise gets to continue once more.
6. Carmelo Anthony
Team: New York Knicks
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 27.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.7 blocks, 24.5 PER
There was a lot of blame that needed to be doled out in Madison Square Garden last season, but Carmelo Anthony shouldn't receive any of it.
While his teammates largely floundered and created distractions, Melo was consistently excellent. Not only did he continue functioning as one of the best scorers the NBA had to offer, but he also put up fantastic rebounding numbers, willingly passed the ball to the right man (even if his teammates often failed to convert those passes into makes) and actually tried on defense.
He was the driving force behind keeping the team somewhat afloat.
With Phil Jackson serving as a stabilizing force for the New York Knicks, there should be far less dysfunction. With Derek Fisher running the show and installing a triangle offense, Anthony's teammates should be more effective.
All the while, he'll just continue being a superstar. A highly paid superstar at that.
5. Stephen Curry
Team: Golden State Warriors
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 24.1 PER
Stephen Curry can shoot the lights out of a gym.
After shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the arc and taking 7.9 attempts per game, Curry now has consecutive seasons in which he's topped 42 percent and seven attempts during the average contest. According to Basketball-Reference, the number of players with two such qualified seasons—not even two consecutive seasons—is a short one:
- Stephen Curry
Ray Allen (43.4 percent on 7.7 attempts in 2001-02) and Dennis Scott (42.5 and 7.7 in 1995-96) are the only other two to qualify even once.
However, Curry has developed into so much more than a shooter.
He's an intelligent rebounder who reads bounces off the rim as well as anyone. He's one of the better distributors in the league—especially that one-handed catapult off the bounce—even if he needs to cut back on the turnovers. And, under the tutelage of Mark Jackson, with whom he was quite close, he started actually trying on defense in 2013-14.
Will that continue in 2014-15 with Steve Kerr at the helm?
If Curry wants to keep his top-five placement, it'll need to.
4. Anthony Davis
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.8 blocks, 26.5 PER
Anthony Davis is slowly taking over the NBA.
A 21-year-old big man, The Brow was completely dominant during his second go-around at the NBA level, developing a mid-range jumper and a set of post moves to boot. Not only did he top 20 points per game, but he also thrived on the glass while playing some of the best, most versatile defense of any player who calls one of the Association's frontcourts home.
Leading the league in blocks and averaging a 20/10 is no easy feat.
In fact, using Basketball-Reference.com, let's take a gander at how many players have ever matched or exceeded each of his per-game averages that are listed up above, just as we did with Curry's shooting:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (three times)
- Bob Lanier
- Hakeem Olajuwon (10 times)
- David Robinson (seven times)
Of course, Davis' age makes him even more impressive. Olajuwon's first qualified season came at age 23, and Robinson's at 24.
He's on pace to be an all-time great, even with just two seasons under his belt.
Oh, and he's putting on muscle weight during the offseason, continuing to grow vertically and working on his offensive arsenal. Basically, he's trying to become more unfair than he already is.
Be afraid, NBA. Be very afraid.
3. Chris Paul
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 19.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 2.5 steals, 0.1 blocks, 26.0 PER
For the umpteenth time, the argument that Chris Paul is not good in the playoffs is completely invalid.
During this past run, he averaged 19.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 10.3 assists (league high) and 2.8 steals (league high) per game while shooting 46.7 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from beyond the arc. His PER was a sensational 23.6, which was actually down from the 2013 postseason's playoff-best 29.2.
If you want to criticize CP3 for some poor late-game play in a few key outings, fine. Just make sure you give him credit for everything that got the Los Angeles Clippers to that point, as those plays would've been irrelevant otherwise.
Paul, who won't be on the wrong side of 30 until the next playoff run, remains the league's best point guard thanks to his unmatched blend of skills. He's one of the best scorers at his position, an All-Defensive floor general and a player capable of leading the league in dimes.
There are plenty of challengers for his positional throne, this year more than any, but he's still the one seated in it for the time being.
2. Kevin Durant
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, 29.9 PER
It may seem strange to have the league's reigning scoring champ and MVP checking in at No. 2, but Kevin Durant is going to have a tough time replicating the work he did in 2013-14, which was only marginally better than that produced by the No. 1 player in these rankings.
Yes, Durant is only 25 years old and still improving. Yes, he's a transcendentally good offensive player who could probably average 20 points per game while playing with a blindfold on. Yes, he's only getting better defensively, on the glass and as a distributor.
However, Russell Westbrook is going to be back in the lineup and at full strength, which inherently means fewer touches for K.D. Meanwhile, the next player in this countdown is going to be more motivated than ever to excel during the regular season as he attempts to justify his decision to return to his hometown.
Consider Durant more of a "1B" than a "2" in the rankings, but either way, he's playing second fiddle yet again.
1. LeBron James
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.3 blocks, 29.4 PER
Last year, LeBron James knew he could coast through the regular season, playing somnambulant basketball at times while still advancing through the weak Eastern Conference. A stellar supporting cast, one filled with experienced players and established stars, allowed him to do exactly that, and he knew the Miami Heat could flip the proverbial switch during the inevitable postseason run.
James has to prove he made the right decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and there's a chance he feels as though he owes his full efforts to the hometown faithful who will fill up The Q on a nightly basis.
Beyond that, the four-time MVP has to set an example for his younger teammates, leading through his actions, not his words. If he plays hard, Andrew Wiggins probably will too, for example.
And on top of that, the Cavs aren't the best team in the East. LeBron knows that, as do most of his teammates, meaning they'll have to push the pedal down to the metal right away if they hope to earn the best seed possible.
A motivated LeBron is a scary LeBron, not that any other version isn't particularly intimidating on the basketball court.