As a fan of the Nets and Knicks, I'm used to watching average-to-poor players contribute to losses on a near-nightly basis (though the Knicks have picked it up of late). That being said, it's fun to play the "what if?" game, dreaming of rooting for better teams with better players.
Well, there's a chance—though I'll always be skeptical—that my dreams could come true this offseason, when both of my teams will have the cap space necessary to land at least one of superstars on the open market. All of this discussion and analysis of the 2010 free agent class has led me to ask the following question: Where do these players rank in the grand scheme of the NBA?
The answers are in the following list...
Honorable Mentions (In No Particular Order)
Danny Granger, SF, Indiana Pacers
Joe Johnson, SG, Atlanta Hawks (Free Agent)
Brandon Roy, SG, Portland Trail Blazers
Steve Nash, PG, Phoenix Suns
The Top 10
10. Kevin Durant, SG/SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
It was a tough call between Durant and Nash for this final spot. Neither are exceptional defensive players, and they have completely different offensive styles. This one's really a coin flip, and it becomes a matter of personal preference.
I'm going with Durant because he's much younger than the former two-time MVP, and yet he's already one of the most prolific scorers in the game. KD is third in the league in points per game at the moment, this coming after an exceptional breakout season in '08-09.
He's lean, lanky, and long, and he uses those traits to his advantage as an elusive and versatile scorer. Durant has also increased his aggressiveness in the rebounding and defensive departments, making him better equipped to contribute to the development of a winning culture in Oklahoma City. Winning players execute on both ends of the court, and Durant has become more aware of that fact in his third NBA season.
His unselfishness isn't quite there, nor is his defense (yet), which keeps him from being higher on the list.
9. Deron Williams, PG, Utah Jazz
When he was drafted in the lottery a handful of years back, I wondered if he was capable of being a starting point guard at basketball's highest level. He shared the ball with Dee Brown and Luther Head at Illinois, something that—for me—concealed some of his incredible skills as a floor general.
The NBA scouts knew better than I, though, and the Jazz ended up with a perfectly rounded point guard. Offensively, there's nothing Deron can't do. He's a fantastic perimeter shooter with excellent form and good consistency. In distribution, he passes equally as well off the dribble as from a standstill.
Statistically, he is second in assists per game, behind only Nash, and Williams is a more youthful, physical, and explosive player at this stage in their respective careers. D-Will can create the big play for you but is also willing to take—and make—the big shot.
8. Dwight Howard, PF/C, Orlando Magic
"Superman" is one of the premier two-way players in the world, and he should be higher on this list. The reason he's being punished is that he's shown little-to-no improvement in his individual offensive game, something that could hinder the Magic down the line.
The great big men of the past two decades—Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, etc.—were all the go-to-guys for their teams (in their primes). Howard has been unable to be that type of big man because of his subpar free throw shooting and unrefined offensive repertoire. Last year, down the stretch, the ball was in the hands of Hedo Turkoglu or Rashard Lewis; now it's Vince Carter and Lewis.
Until Howard shows the commitment and ability to be The Man, I can't have him any higher than the eight-spot.
7. Tim Duncan, PF/C, San Antonio Spurs
Speak of the Devil—here's a big man you can go to with the game on the line. Sure Howard has the advantage in youth and athleticism, but "The Big Fundamental" has every post move in the book, and he's also a solid face-up shooter. If and when Howard's arsenal resembles Duncan's, he'll then be the kind of player who can carry his team to NBA championships. Whether or not that day will come, we'll have to wait and see.
Getting back to Duncan, his basketball IQ is off the charts. He has the championship rings, and he's been in every possible high-pressure situation you could imagine, so he knows how to make the correct play at critical stages of the game. The value of that ability is immeasurable. Timmy is equally as intelligent defensively as he is offensively.
And he's still got it, averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds per game this season.
6. Carmelo Anthony, SF, Denver Nuggets
Here's a player who is currently taking his game to the next level. 'Melo is leading the NBA in scoring while shooting 48 percent from the floor. Talk about efficiency.
With J.R. Smith suspended for the first seven games of the year, 'Melo knew he'd have to be more aggressive offensively to pick up the slack. Already one of the game's most well-rounded scorers, 'Melo found a way to increase the volume of his shooting while maintaining a high quality of attempt. That's an extremely difficult balance to achieve.
Now, with J.R. back, 'Melo has continued his high-percentage play and has been able to facilitate offense for his teammates in the process.
After a strong '08-09 campaign, the Nuggets are again looking like an elite team. If they can keep it together, Mr. Anthony will be an interesting MVP candidate.
5. Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks (Free Agent)
The model of consistency. We expect a certain level of production from this guy each and every year, and he delivers...and then some. Nowitzki is averaging 27 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, while the Mavs have stormed back near the top of the Western Conference after a couple of mediocre seasons.
Simply put, Nowitzki is a freak. A seven-footer with a stunning shooting stroke and superb overall ball skills. We see big fellas like Shaq and Howard struggling at the foul line, and yet there's Nowitzki, stroking it (and making it look easy) from behind the three-point arc.
Sure Nowitzki's never won a championship, but he does have a Western Conference title under his belt, and he's made his fair share of big shots the past few years. Coach Rick Carlisle can go to him with his back to the basket in the post or facing up and driving right from just inside the top of the key.
The only way to stop Dirk is a hard double-team; otherwise, you have to cross your fingers and hope he misses.
He doesn't too often.
4. Chris Paul, PG, New Orleans Hornets
Because of his injury hiatus, CP3 isn't qualified for the statistical leaders at the moment. No need to punish him for that, as this list isn't entirely based upon the current season (if you haven't already noticed).
We all know he's the premier point guard in the league, a lightning-rod who finds the perfect balance of distribution and scoring. CP3 utilizes the mid-range game as well, or better, than anyone else in the NBA. He uses his fantastic ball-handling ability to break down the initial defender, then steps inside the three-point stripe and pulls up for easy jumpers.
When it comes to passing, he has no weaknesses. His greatest strength is fastbreak distribution, and it makes you wonder why the Hornets aren't a true run-and-gun offensive team. (Perhaps because they don't have the appropriate surrounding personnel). Regardless, there's no one slicker with the ball in their hands, and CP3 is an incredibly valuable defensive player as well.
3. Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat (Free Agent)
D-Wade is probably cemented in this position in people's lists throughout the country. This is what happens when you play in the era of Kobe and LeBron—you're a nearly unstoppable two-way player with a championship ring already in your possession, and you're third on the list.
But if LeBron doesn't get a ring sometime within the next handful of seasons, and Wade continues his all-world level of play, things may begin to change in the minds of the public. To some extent, I'm sure the fates of these two superstars will be determined by their decisions in free agency. Could they end up together?
Nahhhhh. No wayyy.
2. LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers (Free Agent)
Anddd cue the never-ending debate. I've had the Kobe-LeBron discussion a bizillion times already in my life, and something tells me I'll be having it again for the remainder of this week. Like the Nash-Durant situation at the beginning of this post, it's a matter of personal preference.
Here's how it usually goes (the italics are me):
LeBron has the better all-around individual statistics.
Kobe has four championship rings, LeBron hasn't won a single championship GAME.
LeBron hasn't been playing as long.
Last year was his sixth season in the NBA; he's had his opportunities.
LeBron is younger, stronger, and better at getting to the rim.
Kobe is a far superior perimeter shooter, particularly at the end of games.
LeBron is a better passer.
Maybe. I can't argue with the numbers, but Kobe's been an excellent passer in the postseason.
LeBron is a freak of nature; there's never been anyone like him. Possibly the most gifted athlete in the history of the universe.
Kobe's easily the closest to Jordan, as far as position, style of play, mannerisms, demeanor, and level of success.
...And so on.
Really what it comes down to is that Kobe has proven that he can carry a team to a championship. He's proven that he can perform at his best when the pressure is at its highest possible level. And the best part is he's still an absolute beast. He's not showing any signs of slowing down.
As far as championships go, LeBron will have to get started...before he even has the chance to slow down.
(John Frascella is the author of Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land, the first and only book centered on Boston's popular GM Theo Epstein. Follow John on Twitter @RedSoxAuthor.)