LeBron James: Is He Still Atop the NBA's Top 50 Players List?

Elliott Pohnl@@ElliottPohnl_BRFeatured ColumnistOctober 21, 2010

LeBron James: Is He Still Atop the NBA's Top 50 Players List?

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    LeBron James might be the biggest villain in the NBA, but it's impossible to overlook the talents that have carried him to two straight Most Valuable Player awards.

    With his remarkable all-around game and improved defense, LeBron has clearly cemented a place as one of the best players in the world.

    Kobe Bryant remains a cold-blooded assassin in the clutch, tailoring his game to do whatever the moment calls for.

    Then there is Kevin Durant, who is rapidly rising up the list of NBA greats.

    The league's best scorer looks to take the next step this season and knock the King off his lofty perch.

    The criteria for this list won't be solely based on statistics or career accomplishments.  It will primarily be based on impact players we'll have in the upcoming season.

    Here's a look at the NBA's top 50 players heading into the 2010-2011 season.

No. 50: David West

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    Why He Is No. 50: Statistically, David West compares with the better power forwards in the game.  He is certainly talented, but he owes much of his success to playing alongside Chris Paul.

    How He Can Rise: If West shows he can put up 20 and 10 for an entire season while helping the Hornets be competitive, he will get a little more respect as being among the NBA's best.

    How He Can Fall: After Darren Collison was traded in the offseason, West really needs Chris Paul to stay put.  If CP3 gets traded, West's value will decline considerably.

No. 49: Brandon Jennings

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    Why He Is No. 49: Jennings shocked the NBA during his rookie season, scorching the nets on his way to plenty of memorable games.  His biggest outburst came against the defensively challenged Warriors in November, when he scored 29 of his 55 points in the third quarter.

    How He Can Rise: Aside from adding some muscle to his skinny frame, Jennings needs to become a better distributor for the Bucks.  He is a capable and willing passer, but he struggles to shake his scorer's mentality at times.

    How He Can Fall: In order to stay on the court when his shot isn't falling, he needs to get better at running what should be an improved offense for Scott Skiles.

No. 48: Aaron Brooks

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    Why He Is No. 48: Aaron Brooks just keeps proving people wrong.  The speedy guard played like an All-Star for the Rockets last season, taking big shots down the stretch and helping Rick Adelman's team overachieve.

    How He Can Rise: Brooks wants a new contract, and another productive season could make Rockets GM Daryl Morey regret sticking to protocol by refusing to negotiate an extension. 

    How He Can Fall: Few players had more impact for their respective teams than Brooks did last season.  But was it all a fluke?  Only time will tell.

No. 47: Al Horford

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    Why He Is No. 47: Horford is a double-double machine who can be dominant at times, despite being an undersized center.  He provides the Hawks with a much-needed jolt of energy on both ends of the court.

    How He Can Rise: Horford should have no problem averaging 15 and 10 this season, finally gaining some respect for being one of the best young centers in the game.  Developing a better offensive game could help him challenge for an All-Star spot.

    How He Can Fall: If he starts taking notes from Josh Smith and coasting through games, Horford's physical talent alone won't be enough for him to make a major impact.

No. 46: Andrea Bargnani

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    Why He Is No. 46: Very quietly, Bargnani has been improving steadily north of the border and is poised for a huge season with Chris Bosh out of the way.  The Italian averaged career-highs across the board last year and is one of the best shooting big men in the NBA.

    How He Can Rise: Bargnani should have no problem putting up numbers, but it remains to be seen exactly how much impact he will have on Toronto's slim chances of competing in the Eastern Conference.

    How He Can Fall: There are plenty of players in the NBA who put up impressive statistics without actually having an impact.  Despite his impressive skill set, Bargnani could become one of those players.

No. 45: Tony Parker

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    Why He Is No. 45: As George Hill's value continues to climb, Tony Parker's impact continues to fall.  The Spurs could look to trade their floor general and hand over the keys to Hill at some point this season.

    How He Can Rise: After missing 26 games last season, Parker spent the summer getting healthy and preparing to show he can still play at an All-Star level.  If his body holds up, his numbers will have a good chance to improve dramatically from a season ago.

    How He Can Fall: Although he is only 28 years old, Parker has plenty of miles under his belt and can't afford to get off to a slow start this season.

No. 44: Devin Harris

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    Why He Is No. 44: Much like his former intrastate rival Tony Parker, Harris has battled injuries and keeps coming up in trade rumors.  When healthy, he still is capable of being an impact player.

    How He Can Rise: It's time to set aside those hurt feelings and get back to playing basketball.  Unhappy his name is being mentioned in the Carmelo Anthony trade rumors, Harris needs to produce and help the Nets improve in the process.

    How He Can Fall: If Harris gets hurt or pouts his way through the season, his enormous contract will look even less appealing to other NBA teams than it already does.

No. 43: Vince Carter

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    Why He Is No. 43: Despite his undeniable talent, Vince Carter's inconsistent effort and productivity drops him down the rankings of the NBA's best.  When he puts his mind to it, he can still be a dominant scorer.  It just doesn't happen that often.

    How He Can Rise: According to reports, the Magic players and coaches have spent the preseason trying to find ways to motivate Carter.  If the added attention draws a response, Carter could average over 20 points per game and help Orlando challenge Boston and Miami.

    How He Can Fall: There is nothing more frustrating than watching Carter stand on the three-point line with his trademarked blank stare.  At some point, he will have to begin asserting himself on a more consistent basis.

No. 42: Marc Gasol

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    Why He Is No. 42: Gasol quietly put together a fantastic season for the Grizzlies in 2009-2010, averaging 14 points and nine rebounds and even showing the ability to block shots in the paint.  His offensive skills are too good to ignore.

    How He Can Rise: If the Grizzlies can make a run at the playoffs, Gasol might finally get the attention he deserves.  Averaging a double-double this season should be enough to put him on the map.

    How He Can Fall: There is a chance Gasol has reached his potential at the NBA level.  He will always be a very good player, but he may never be a great player.

No. 41: LaMarcus Aldridge

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    Why He Is Ranked No. 41: With his smooth game and reliable jump shot, Aldridge has all the makings of a future All-Star.

    How He Can Rise: Aldridge has no problem scoring, but he needs to play with more toughness and crash the glass.

    How He Can Fall: It seems like everyone who plays for the Blazers is bitten by the injury bug.  Unless he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast led by Brandon Roy, Aldridge won't be able to have a huge impact on his own.

No. 40: Chris Kaman

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    Why He Is No. 40: The reliable Kaman is one of the NBA's best centers, willing to do the dirty work and capable of making an impact on the offensive end.

    How He Can Rise: Stay healthy and form a lethal tandem with rookie Blake Griffin.  Kaman should be able to focus more on scoring with Griffin alongside to rebound and block shots.

    How He Can Fall: Kaman could easily fall into the shadow of Griffin, and he has had some injury issues in the past.  His name has been mentioned in trade rumors and he could moved if the Clip Joint tries to get even younger.

No. 39: Chauncey Billups

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    Why He Is No. 39: Mr. Big Shot could soon find himself all alone in Denver.  His skills and production are beginning to decline a bit, but Billups is still good enough to direct a team to the postseason.

    How He Can Rise: It won't be easy, especially with Carmelo Anthony likely headed out the door.  If the Nuggets find a way to make the playoffs, Billups likely will be the catalyst.

    How He Can Fall: After playing in the World Championships this summer, the 34 year-old could start showing signs of breaking down as the NBA season grinds forward.

No. 38: Steve Nash

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    Why He Is No. 38: Perhaps this season more than ever, Steve Nash will need to play out of his mind to help the Suns compete in the Western Conference.  There is no question he is nearing the end, but his production—and efficiency—is impossible to overlook.

    How He Can Rise: The Suns are turning back the clock as life after Amar'e begins, with the floor spread with shooters for Nash to find off pick-and-rolls.  Averaging another double-double this season will show the NBA that one of the best point guards to ever play the game isn't done yet.

    How He Can Fall: Nash is in tremendous physical condition, but he is 36 and has Goran Dragic nipping at his heels.  With a fairly mediocre cast around him, it could be difficult to produce at a high level this season.

No. 37: Rudy Gay

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    Why He Is No. 37: It looks like Rudy Gay is finally starting to figure things out.  After playing with consistency throughout the 2009-2010 season, he was rewarded with a max-contract.  It's time to take the next step.

    How He Can Rise: There's no reason Gay shouldn't be able to average around 20 points and seven rebounds per game while making an impact on the defensive end.  Memphis has all the makings of a sleeper team in the Western Conference this season, with Gay and Zach Randolph leading the way.

    How He Can Fall: Gay has had attitude and effort issues in the past, and with a new contract, he might find himself searching for motivation.

No. 36: Danny Granger

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    Why He Is No. 36: Granger does one thing well and that's score.  His inside-outside game is good enough to make him an All-Star.

    How He Can Rise: The Pacers are not a good rebounding team, and Granger is one of the biggest culprits.  The 6'8" forward averaged a meager 5.5 rebounds per game last season and should be able to contribute more on the glass.

    How He Can Fall: As his game has improved, so has his love of launching three-pointers.  Granger shot just 42 percent last season and is starting to look like a pure scorer who will never help his team win many games.

No. 35: John Wall

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    Why He Is No. 35: Great players have the ability to produce numbers while making a huge impact.  Despite his inability to consistently make jump shots, John Wall's raw ability already makes him one of the better point guards in the NBA.

    How He Can Rise: Keep working on the "J."  Wall is a decent shooter off the dribble, but struggled behind the three-point line in college and probably won't be very accurate early on in the pros.

    How He Can Fall: If NBA teams sag off him, Wall could be forced to throw up bricks from the outside and become a turnover machine for the Wizards. 

No. 34: Al Jefferson

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    Why He Is No. 34: Jefferson has a wonderful offensive game and is a walking double-double.

    How He Can Rise: Playing with a great NBA point guard for the first time in his career should help Jefferson average 20 and 10 without much trouble.

    How He Can Fall: Keep going to Krispy Kreme before practice.  Partly because he was still recovering from knee surgery, Jefferson looked overweight last year and could probably stand to lose some more weight in Utah.

No. 33: Andre Iguodala

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    Why He Is No. 33: Iguodala has been a fantastic all-around player ever since entering the NBA.

    How He Can Rise: Despite his versatility, Iguodala has never been a consistent scorer.  If he shows he can be an alpha dog, the Sixers might stop trying to unload his contract.

    How He Can Fall: As the focal point of Philly's offense, Iguodala will get plenty of shots.  That might not be a good thing.  A career 32 percent three-point shooter, Iggy probably would be best served as becoming a second fiddle somewhere else in the NBA.

No 32: Josh Smith

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    Why He Is No. 32: Seeing Smith ranked this high is certain to surprise some.  His lazy demeanor overshadows his impact on the defensive end.  Now that he has finally stopped launching jumpers, the good will outweigh the bad.

    How He Can Rise: There's no reason Smith can't average a double-double while improving his blocked shot numbers.

    How He Can Fall: It wouldn't be surprising to see Smith drift through games and pout if he doesn't get the ball.  It's entirely possible he will never mature in the ATL.

No. 31: Joakim Noah

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    Why He Is No. 31: It's not all about stats.  Noah's energy and prowess on the defensive end have been enough to help the undermanned Bulls be competitive in the last two years.  It might not look pretty, but his spastic style and unique skills are difficult to ignore.

    How He Can Rise: Noah is already regarded as one of the NBA's best defensive players and rebounders, and the addition of Carlos Boozer should enable him to focus on what he does best this season.

    How He Can Fall: Aside from avoiding additional bouts with plantar faciitis, Noah will need to keep playing hard to make a big impact for the Bulls.

No. 30: Eric Gordon

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    Why He Is No. 30: Gordon averaged fairly modest numbers for the Clip Joint last season, but his performance in the World Championships this summer was a sign of things to come.

    How He Can Rise: Leading the Clippers to the playoffs would certainly do the trick.  Since that might not be realistic, leading the Clippers to around a .500 record should help Gordon gain respect.  It probably won't happen unless he averages at least 20 points per game.

    How He Can Fall: Getting injured and failing to assert himself on the offensive end.  Gordon's production depends on what Baron Davis wants to do.  If Davis looks for his shot, Gordon tends to disappear.  Players don't reach greatness by deferring to others.

No. 29: David Lee

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    Why He Is No. 29: If this list was based on fantasy value, David Lee would be much higher.  There's no question he has benefited from playing in Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo system.

    How He Can Rise: Lee is what he is—an underrated athlete who will score and rebound.  His numbers might even get better with Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis finding him inside for easy buckets.

    How He Can Fall: Trying to be a post scorer.  Lee has a nice touch, but his real value comes in staying active around the rim.

No. 28: Monta Ellis

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    Why He Is No. 28: After recovering from his moped accident, Ellis quietly averaged 25 points and five dimes for the Warriors last season.

    How He Can Rise: It should be pretty easy for Ellis to keep on moving up, especially if he stays healthy.  He could even challenges for a scoring title and the NBA lead in steals in 2010-2011.

    How He Can Fall: Keep suffering injuries.  Ellis hasn't lost any explosion, but he seems to have lost interest in putting his body on the line in Golden State.  Don't expect the Warriors to deal him quite yet.

No. 27: Carlos Boozer

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    Why He Is No. 27: Boozer will get the privilege of playing alongside another dynamic point guard this season in Chicago.  He will never be a great defender, but his scoring and rebounding makes him a legitimate All-Star.

    How He Can Rise: Win something.  Boozer gives the Bulls a scoring big man for the first time in a decade, and helping Chicago pull an upset or two in the postseason would help define his true value in the NBA.

    How He Can Fall: Keep getting injured.  Whether it's knee problems or the mysterious broken hand, Boozer has had plenty of bad luck throughout his NBA career.

No. 26: Stephen Curry

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    Why He is No. 26: Stephen Curry had plenty of haters coming out of Davidson, mainly because it still wasn't known how he could compete against better athletes in the NBA.  He showed he could score and run a team during his rookie season, making a bigger overall impact than teammate Monta Ellis.

    How He Can Rise: It's not just a numbers game with Curry.  He has the makings of a player Golden State can build its franchise around.  He will never be a superstar, but he should be a very good asset for years to come.

    How He Can Fall: Despite his youth, Curry is more stable than a handful of players appearing in the list.  He will be good, but he probably will never be great.  Don't expect him to move up or down in the near future.

No. 25: Russell Westbrook

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    Why He Is No. 25: Westbrook can dunk, defend and run up and down with anyone in the NBA.  His shot still needs work.

    How He Can Rise: Westbrook has as much upside as any young player in the game.  If he becomes a better leader and keeps working on his jumper, there's no reason he can't form a dynamic tandem with Kevin Durant for years to come.

    How He Can Fall: It's all about knowing his role.  For the moment, Westbrook has kept his shots to a minimum and concentrated on getting the ball to his teammates.  He probably will never be a pure scorer in the NBA, and he needs to remember that.

No. 24: Manu Ginobili

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    Why He Is No. 24: Regardless of his overall numbers, Manu is still the engine that makes the Spurs go.  He remains one of the best clutch players in the league.

    How He Can Rise: Stay healthy and keep producing.  The Spurs' dynasty is on its last legs, but Ginobili probably has some magic left.

    How He Can Fall: Ginobili finally took the summer off to rest his aging body.  Injuries have been a problem during his career and could surface again.  You've got to wonder how much grit and resolve he has left.

No. 23: Zach Randolph

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    Why He Is No. 23: Unlike many of his counterparts across the NBA, Zach Randolph doesn't have a great guard capable of giving him the ball.  Now that he has stopped being a lazy bum, he earns his money by being a versatile scorer and productive rebounder.

    How He Can Rise: Show that last season wasn't a fluke.  Z-Bo averaged 20 and 11 for the Grizz last year and could better those numbers this season.

    How He Can Fall: There's always the chance Randolph could revert to his old ways in Memphis.

No. 22: Brook Lopez

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    Why He Is No. 22: Lopez has surprised many by becoming an All-Star caliber center despite playing on one of the NBA's worst teams. 

    How He Can Rise: If the Nets start winning, Lopez will probably be a big reason why.  Don't be surprised if he averages a double-double in 2010-2011.

    How He Can Fall: Ultimately, Lopez isn't good enough to produce wins without getting at least some help.  That's where Carmelo Anthony comes in.

No. 21: Andrew Bogut

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    Why He Is No. 21: When healthy, Bogut has as much talent as any post player in the NBA.  The keyword being "when healthy."

    How He Can Rise: As he looks to return from last year's elbow injury, Bogut needs to show he can stay on the court.  A great passer out of double-teams, the Aussie has the ability to make his teammates better.  Maybe will actually get to contribute in the postseason in 2011.

    How He Can Fall: It's all about staying on the court and playing with toughness.  Before his season came to an abrupt end, Bogut was playing at an All-NBA level.

No. 20: Paul Pierce

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    Why He Is No. 20: The Truth is still alive and well in Boston.  Pierce fought through injuries last season and still had his moments.

    How He Can Rise: Pierce remains the Celtics' go-to option in crunch time and has added the three-point shot to his game to compensate for his age.  His numbers weren't great last season, and he needs to do a little more scoring this season to stay in the top 20.

    How He Can Fall: Get even slower.  Pierce has always been a player able to thrive on skill instead of jaw-dropping athleticism.  He has a lot of miles on that body.

No. 19: Tyreke Evans

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    Why He Is No. 19: Evans put himself in some historic company in his rookie season, averaging over 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. 

    How He Can Rise: Despite his ability to score, Evans is still a very average shooter from the perimeter.  He showed he can play the point in the NBA, but he might be better suited to serving as a two-guard in the future.

    How He Can Fall: Aside from not getting more speeding tickets, Evans needs to keep his head on straight and keep playing, even as the fate of his franchise hangs in the balance.

No. 18: Tim Duncan

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    Why He Is No. 18: Sure, Duncan might not be a true superstar any longer, but his presence makes the Spurs one of the better teams in the Western Conference.

    How He Can Rise: Keep producing and help the dynasty stick together for at least one more year.  After his minutes were limited last season, Duncan should have plenty of energy to thrive in 2010-2011.

    How He Can Fall: Start showing his age.  With the Spurs getting close to transitioning to a younger roster, Duncan's minutes might dwindle even further. 

No. 17: Joe Johnson

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    Why He Is No. 17: Known mostly as a scorer, Johnson can be a decent all-around player when he puts his mind to it.

    How He Can Rise: The $120 million man has the ability to play like a Most Valuable Player.  He can shoot, handle the ball, get to the basket and even post up when he needs to.  Erasing the memory of last season's playoff debacle would help him move up the list of the NBA's best.

    How He Can Fall: Just stand outside and shoot three-pointers.  Johnson has the ability to make his teammates better, but he might not have the desire.  If he doesn't score, the Hawks are a painful team to watch in the halfcourt.

No. 16: Brandon Roy

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    Why He Is No. 16: Roy is regarded as one of the best young guards in the NBA for a reason.  Along with being a great scorer, he can handle the ball and create open shots for his teammates.

    How He Can Rise: If Roy stays healthy, there's no reason he can't average around 25 points per game this season.  A career 35 percent shooter from three-point range, Roy's game still has room for improvement.

    How He Can Fall: Get injured—again.  Without Roy, the Blazers have little chance to compete in the Western Conference.

No. 15: Gerald Wallace

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    Why He Is No. 15: Wallace plays with an enjoyable style, flying around the court and dominating bigger players.

    How He Can Rise: Wallace added the three-point shot to his arsenal last season, shooting 37 percent from three-point range.  If his offensive game keeps improving, he should be an All-Star for years to come.

    How He Can Fall: His chaotic manner of play makes injuries inevitable.  Like several other players on this list, Wallace's place among the league's elite depends on his willingness to play harder than most of his opponents.

No. 14: Amar'e Stoudemire

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    Why He Is No. 14: Amar'e is great when he wants to be, but his all-around game is never likely to get much better.

    How He Can Rise: Rebound the ball and pretend to play defense.  Stoudemire is much too athletic to average less than 10 boards a game.  Don't be surprised if he enjoys his best season ever in 2010-2011.

    How He Can Fall: By not getting better.  In his new spot on basketball's biggest stage, S.T.A.T. should strive to improve.

No. 13: Chris Bosh

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    Why He Is No. 13: The numbers are great, but the results haven't been.  Chris Bosh isn't a superstar—at least not yet.

    How He Can Rise: Just win baby.  Bosh won't be counted on as much as his two famous teammates, but his ability to score in the mid-post could pay dividends for the Heat.

    How He Can Fall: His numbers are likely to drop dramatically, and if the Heat fall on hard times he will be labeled as a great player who never won.

    Don't count on Bosh being the next Karl Malone just yet.

No. 12: Rajon Rondo

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    Why He Is No. 12: If only he could shot the J.  Despite his suspect shot, Rondo is a triple-double waiting to happen and has the ability to take over games.  Without him, the Celtics would have no chance to go anywhere in the Eastern Conference.

    How He Can Rise: By improving that ugly jumper and continuing to mature.  Once his Hall of Fame teammates walk away, Rondo will have to shoulder more of the scoring burden.

    How He Can Fall: By taking it on himself to score before Pierce, Ray Allen and Garnett ride off into the sunset..  Rondo is a great scorer in the flow of the game, but he isn't an exceptional one-on-one player.  That's not what the Celtics need from him at the moment.

No. 11: Pau Gasol

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    Why He Is No. 11: Gasol has become a clutch player and actually shown the willingness to get physical in the post.  His footwork and all-around skills are difficult to match, and his contributions to the Lakers' titles make him among the league's best.

    How He Can Rise: Keep winning rings.  If the Lakers are to make another run at the title this season, Gasol might have to produce more than ever before.

    How He Can Fall: If he doesn't pick up the slack for Andrew Bynum, the Lakers will struggle to make it out of the west.  Gasol's value comes from production, but also from his ability to make his team win.

No. 10: Dirk Nowitzki

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    Why He Is No. 10: Dirk gets the job done.  Now, he needs to show he made the right decision by staying in Dallas at a discounted rate.

    How He Can Rise: If the Mavericks make noise in the Western Conference this season, Nowitizki will be leading the way.  At the moment, he is clearly one of the best power forwards in the NBA to never win a title.

    How He Can Fall: Time is running out for Dirk to win in Dallas.  The Spurs are fading, but the Lakers are still strong and the Thunder are ready to rumble.  Arguably the best shooter for a player his size to ever play in the NBA, Dirk needs a title to cement his legacy.

No. 9: Chris Paul

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    Why He Is No. 9: Chris Paul can make just about anybody he plays with into a scorer.

    How He Can Rise: Paul has improved his outside shot throughout his career, and he will be counted on to average at least 20 points for the Hornets to be competitive in 2010-2011.

    How He Can Fall: Stop playing and start pouting.  CP3 doesn't appear to be in great physical condition heading into the season, and he probably isn't very excited about the prospect of spending another season in New Orleans.  Who can blame him?

No. 8: Derrick Rose

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    Why He Is No. 8: Derrick Rose is getting better and better.  He might be the most athletic guard in the league, even with John Wall on the scene.

    How He Can Rise: Work on his long range shot.  Rose became a competent three-point shooter last season, and the next step is to take his game outside.

    How He Can Fall: Rose's attacking style exposes him to plenty of bumps and bruises during the season.  Without LeBron or Carmelo, he will need to show that he is ready to be a superstar when it matters.

No. 7: Deron Williams

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    Why He Is No. 7: Williams gets the nod over Rose because of his track record and ability to shoot from three-point range.

    How He Can Rise: If the Jazz win a playoff series or two.  His statistics are fantastic, but he could use some more wins in the postseason.  It won't be easy.

    How He Can Fall: Start to get frustrated with his teammates, especially Al Jefferson.  The Jazz are likely to slow things down a bit this season, and Williams' numbers could suffer slightly as a result.

No. 6: Carmelo Anthony

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    Why He Is No. 6: Finally, Carmelo has expanded his game and started bringing it every night.

    How He Can Rise: Wherever he ends up, 'Melo needs to win and look good doing it.  Until that happens, he will always be a step below the likes of LeBron and Kobe.  Don't rule out a scoring title at some point in the near future.

    How He Can Fall: By starting to complain.  His frustration with the Nuggets organization is mounting, but it hasn't showed in his performance—yet.  If he is still in Denver by the time next year rolls around, that could change.

No. 5: Dwight Howard

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    Why He Is No. 5: The NBA's most dominant defensive player, Superman has yet to scratch the surface of his offensive potential.

    How He Can Rise: Start showing an offensive game.  Only time will tell if his work with Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer will pay off.

    How He Can Fall: Keep getting frustrated with the officials and complaining when he doesn't get enough touches.  Until he improves his free throws and ability to pass out of double-teams, Howard won't be a reliable scorer down the stretch.

No. 4: Kobe Bryant

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    Why He Is No. 4: That right knee is a problem.  But if anyone can prove the haters wrong, it's the insanely competitive Kobe.

    How He Can Rise: Even if his overall skills decline, there's no reason to believe Kobe still can't elevate his game when he needs to.  The days of scoring titles and Most Valuable Player awards are behind him, but that doesn't mean he is done winning.

    How He Can Fall: Not making the NBA Finals would be a step in the wrong direction and making the finals and losing wouldn't help either.  It's tough to be Kobe.

No. 3: Dwyane Wade

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    Why He Is Ranked No. 3: Can you imagine what Flash will be able to do now that he has help?  A fantastic one-on-one player, nobody really knows if he can play without the ball.

    How He Can Rise: If the Heat win it all, Wade will probably be the one leading the way down the stretch.  Even with LeBron on board, it's still Dwyane's team in South Beach.

    How He Can Fall: After years of doing things on his own and playing through pain, it's only logical to start wondering exactly how much more his body can take.

No. 2: Kevin Durant

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    Why He Is No. 2: We know he can score, but we still don't know exactly how much his all-around game has improved.  His length, handle and long-range shooting bump him a cut above D Wade.

    How He Can Rise: Winning the MVP while leading the league in scoring again would do the trick.  Helping the Thunder make a run in the playoffs would be icing on the cake.

    How He Can Fall: The Thunder won't surprise anybody this year, and Durant will need to show he can thrive in the postseason pressure.

No. 1: LeBron James

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    Why He Is No. 1: LeBron's all-around game and value to his team is unparalleled.

    How He Can Rise: If LeBron is indeed angry with the world, the best thing he can do—and the only thing—is win at least one NBA Championship.

    How He Can Fall: Let's count the ways.  First, it starts with getting injured or somehow getting exposed in a negative light on the court.  Ultimately, he can't afford to crack in big moments.

    He can't afford to lose.