1. Kobe Bryant
You can’t deny his success these last few seasons. However, I think it needs to be said, he wasn’t that great this past postseason, except against the Suns (and who doesn’t look good against the Suns?). In the other series, he wasn’t so much hitting game winners as he was forcing up misses and being bailed out by his teammates. His finals MVP was one of the strangest in history, since he was sub-par in at least four of the seven games. I consider Gasol to be almost his co-pilot in the Lakers’ success. So while I cannot help but acknowledge that this is Kobe’s time, he’s on top of the world, I don’t see him as a basketball god. Furthermore, it is flat out incorrect, as far as I’m concerned, to see him as the greatest player since Jordan—that honor goes to Tim Duncan, but that’s a whole other argument.
1a. LeBron James
OK, Kobe is No. 1, but LeBron is a better player. The argument that Kobe is better used to be that Kobe is a better on-ball defender, a better scorer, and is more clutch, while LeBron has the edge in floor game (assists, rebounds). I don’t think it holds water anymore that Kobe is a better on-ball defender, and that argument will be even less tenable in the seasons to come. As for scoring, my impression is the same as everyone else's: ball in hand, Kobe is a surer thing than LeBron. But the simple fact is, over the last couple of seasons, LeBron has scored more than Kobe, AND he has scored more efficiently. Last shot scenario, you want Kobe, blah, blah, blah, but send LeBron’s 6’8”, muscular, fast body flying up and down an NBA court for 40 minutes, and he’s going to score 30, and he’s going to do it with fewer shots than Kobe on average needs to score 30. So the argument that Kobe is better offensively just doesn’t hold. Obviously, LeBron is a better passer and rebounder. As far as clutch performances go, there are numbers that show that in situations when a game has fewer than five minutes to go and no team has more than a five-point lead, LeBron’s production greatly exceeds not only Kobe’s but everyone else in the league and just about anyone in history, for that matter. So if Kobe is #1, LeBron is 1a.
3. Dwight Howard
A force in some ways, incredibly inept in others, but it’s hard for me to believe that a Dwight Howard team would fail to be relevant come the postseason.
4. Dwyane Wade
He’d be ahead of Howard, except that his teams have been so mediocre the last couple of years, and he has a propensity for injury.
5. Pau Gasol
One test of your basketball IQ, as far as I’m concerned, is that you don’t underrate Gasol.
6. Rajon Rondo
The Celtics won it all two years ago and came a quarter short of doing it again this past season, and their driving engine has been not any of “The Big Three” but Rondo. Whatever you think of his jump shot, you can’t deny what they guy has accomplished. That one game against Cleveland in the playoffs in which he got like, what, 19 rebounds? Come on—it would be a mistake to underrate this guy.
7. Chris Paul
In my view, Paul is the best prototypical point guard in NBA history (Magic, the best ever, was anything but prototypical). I literally cannot see anything to improve on as far as his game goes. BUT, the guy has a history of injury, and a couple of seasons ago, George Karl laid down the blueprint for beating a Chris Paul team—knock Paul to the floor repeatedly, with everything you have. I have a bad feeling that that blueprint is going to be followed by every intelligent NBA coach, and that it’ll end up diminishing Paul’s career and playing days, unless some team can figure out a way to protect him.
8. Deron Williams
Great player. Theoretically, he’s a notch below Paul in skill level, but sturdier. He’s really not, though—he has just as much a history of injury.
I know, that’s three point guards in a row that I’ve listed. This is what people mean when they say it’s a point guard league. The center position has become the weakest in the game (after being the strongest for the first three or four decades of the NBA). The Lakers certainly prove that you don’t have to be a point guard driven team to win it all, but Rondo, Paul, Williams, and even Nash, Kidd, Parker, and Billups, have to be reckoned with in considering the NBA’s best.
9. Kevin Durant
I’m not ready to crown this guy yet, though I admit if I were basing these ratings strictly on the 2009-10 season, I’d have had to put Durant higher. I don’t see him as ever being the all-around player LeBron is, and I think it needs to be said that he was not good against the Lakers in the playoffs. Still, Durant’s learning curve from his rookie season to this past season has been ridiculous. If it were to continue like that, he’d end up as the greatest ever, but I suspect that the ceiling may be closer than people think.
10. Dirk Nowitzki
Say what you want about his rebounding and defense, you’ve got to find a way to explain why Dallas is perennially among the NBA elite with Dirk as THE guy. He’s not what he was a few years ago, but he’s still the greatest shooting 7-footer ever.
Honorable mention: Tim Duncan and Steve Nash: a couple of years ago, they’d have been in the top-10 (Duncan in the top-three), and this past season, they both still performed at a very high level, but it’s hard not to expect diminishing returns with each new season.
No apologies: Carmelo is not in my top-10, and he doesn’t belong there. He’s more of a specialist (a one-on-one scorer), as far as I’m concerned. And as much as he scores, he is not a league leader in scoring efficiency.