NBA Power Rankings: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and the League's Franchise Players

Brian ChappattaCorrespondent IINovember 2, 2010

NBA Power Rankings: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and the League's Franchise Players

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    David Stern has discussed instituting an NFL-like franchise tag as a part of the new collective bargaining agreement, which would allow teams to keep their star players and avoid a gathering of top players in a few select cities.

    So, which player would your team keep?

    For some teams, it's obvious. Oklahoma City would want Kevin Durant locked up and Orlando would franchise Dwight Howard.

    For others, it's not so simple. Who's the best player on the Houston Rockets, for instance? What about the Golden State Warriors? The Detroit Pistons?

    The logic is as follows. Suppose you are the owner of the team in question and you have to lock up one player for the 2010-2011 season—and perhaps beyond. Who would you choose? This poses an interesting question, particularly for aging teams such as the San Antonio Spurs.

    Naturally, LeBron James is better than say, Rudy Gay. Following is the rankings of the franchise player of each NBA team.

30. Mo Williams, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 15.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 5.3 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.3 bpg, 44% fg

     

    J.J. Hickson will probably assume this role at some point this season. But as of right now, Mo Williams is the best player on this lowly Cavaliers team.

    Let's face it, LeBron was the definition of a franchise player on this team. Forget any semblance of coherence. Cleveland's success came solely because James was the most unstoppable player in the game. 

    Antawn Jamison? Anderson Varejao? The former is past his prime, the latter is a lesser version of Joakim Noah. No one on this team would even be considered a quality second option.

    Maybe that's why the King left for South Beach.

29. Rodney Stuckey, Detroit Pistons

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 16.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.4 spg, 41% fg

     

    Another team in the NBA's Central that is among the worst in the Association. Another team in the NBA Central that is going to count on its point guard to be the go-to guy.

    Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace are relics of the Detroit Pistons of old. Rodney Stuckey is the only fresh face on this team that has a chance of getting better and becoming a centerpiece the Pistons can build around.

    Stuckey needs to improve his field-goal percentage to become a more efficient player, especially considering he does not shoot many three-pointers. His assist total must also come up before he's considered one of the better point guards in the league. 

    His age and upside are really the only two reasons why he's ranked ahead of Mo Williams. The Pistons and Cavaliers are facing tough times. Don't expect their 'franchise' point guards to do anything much to ease the pain.

28. Aaron Brooks, Houston Rockets

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 19.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 5.3 apg, 0.8 spg, 43% fg

     

    Look, the Houston Rockets have one of the most balanced, deep teams in the entire NBA. There are few, if any, groups of reserves I'd rather have than the group Rick Adelman has at his disposal.

    That's not what this is about. This is about selecting one player from the Rockets and securing him for the immediate future.

    A few years ago, it would have been simple: Yao Ming or maybe Tracy McGrady when he was still good. Now, it's as far from clear-cut as the Cavaliers or Pistons roster.

    I almost selected Kevin Martin, but then I balked. Martin is far too fragile to be considered a cornerstone of a team. Then there's Shane Battier, a great role player and defender to be sure, but not franchise worthy.

    Yao may never regain his form. So that leaves the speedy Aaron Brooks.

    And why not Brooks? He averaged nearly 20 points per game last season. While his assist numbers are not amazing for a point guard, he can't help it if he has a great backup.

    Then again, losing Brooks would not be the end of the world for Houston. Relative to some of the other stars in the league, he's a cut below. 

27. John Wall, Washington Wizards

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    2010 stats: none

     

    I hate anointing a player the face of the franchise as a rookie (see Clippers in a few slides), but in the case of Washington, everything starts anew with John Wall. And his skill-set leaves me little doubt that he will turn into the cornerstone of this troubled franchise.

    Gilbert Arenas can no longer be considered the franchise player. If Wizards management had its way, he'd be out of Washington in a hurry. Still, they can hope Arenas will be decent enough to teach Wall some of the positive things that made Agent Zero one of the most lethal offensive players in the game—while Captain Kirk teaches Wall defense.

    Other than possibly JaVale McGee, no one else on this Wizards squad screams franchise. So it's John Wall. Let's see what the rookie can do. 

26. Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 17.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.2 apg, 0.3 spg, 1.4 bpg, 47% fg

     

    Andrea Bargnani is not a bad player. He's actually quite good, though not nearly at the level of Dirk yet.

    Still, he's not exactly the type of player you want leading the charge for your franchise through a revamped Eastern Conference.

    He's made the types of improvements you want to see from a player getting acclimated to the NBA game. He posted career highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and field-goal percentage last season, as well as earning more playing time (35 minutes) than in previous seasons.

    Toronto is going to expect Bargnani to be near the top of the team in scoring this season, which probably means a projected boost of about three points per contest.

    The former No. 1 pick had an up-and-down preseason, but as the clearly defined leader, he's going to be the guy, ready or not. I could see an improvement this year followed by potential All-Star status in 2011-2012.

25. Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Getty Images/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 14.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 2.3 apg, 0.7 spg, 0.4 bpg, 45% fg

     

    I'm confident Kevin Love is going to have a monster season in 2010-2011, based on Al Jefferson's departure and Love's performance for Team USA in the summer. I'm talking major improvement, like 20 points and 13 rebounds per game.

    Still, Love is similar to Tim Duncan in a lot of ways, only not nearly as widely recognized because he plays on a terrible team. He has all the fundamentals and will net a double-double nearly every night. Yet he does so in a non-flashy way that doesn't get him noticed.

    When the Timberwolves come to town, he might be the only one for people to notice. Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic? Are you kidding? No one on Minnesota's roster is remotely close to Love's level. If he performs as he is capable, he could potentially make it as an All-Star reserve. 

    Still, compared to the star power higher up on this list—Love still has a ways to go.

24. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    2010 stats: none

     

    Initially when determining franchise players, I thought Eric Gordon might currently be the star of the Los Angeles Clippers. After all, he's proven he can play in the NBA and he just came off a good summer with Team USA.

    Then I saw Blake Griffin play. And now I'm a believer. There's not a trace of doubt in my mind.

    This guy is going to be a double-double machine for a long time. I said the same thing about Kevin Love, but there's no way he has as much potential as Griffin does, nor the athleticism.

    That's not to say Griffin is going to become one of the league's top players this year, because I don't think that's the case. But definitely in a year or two he will be considered an All-Star. And in three or four he might crack the top-10 list of players, if he can stay healthy.

    He should get Rookie of the Year if he keeps playing like he has so far in 2010. But nagging injuries are always a concern, particularly after seeing what happened to Greg Oden.

23. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 15.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.6 spg, 2.5 bpg, 52% fg

     

    Andrew Bogut had a scary, scary injury. So far in the preseason he looks great, and he is continuing to prove why he was a former No. 1 pick.

    What makes Bogut so good is his ability to convert baskets at a fairly high percentage. He averaged nearly 16 points per game last season on just 13 shot attempts per contest. He also rebounds and blocks just as good as anyone in the NBA, finishing second in the entire league in blocks last season.

    Though Bogut is a nice piece and clearly a solid player, the main questions surrounding him are his upside. He's a legit seven-feet tall but is not as athletic as some of the other centers in the league. However, he uses his body well and has a high basketball IQ.

    His minutes are going to be limited to start the season, but eventually he will be back at full strength and contending for the backup center spot in the East behind Dwight Howard.

22. Monta Ellis, Golden State Warriors

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 25.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.2 spg, 0.4 bpg, 45% fg

     

    Anytime a player scores 25.5 points per game as a member of the Golden State Warriors, you need to take a step back and think whether that's more because of the player or because of the system.

    In the case of Monta Ellis, it's admittedly a little bit of both.

    First of all, Ellis led not just his team, but the entire NBA, in minutes per game last year with an astonishing 41.4. That certainly helps out the stats. 

    Still, Ellis is a dynamic scorer who can slash to the basket and carve up opposing defenses, while also having a decent shooting stroke. Of course, Stephen Curry has a better shot, which brings me to why I did not choose Curry.

    Give him one more year to prove he can still produce at a high level when opposing defenses are keying in on him. Once that's the case, he can be considered the franchise player.

    Then again, with all these teams without a clear franchise player, is that really so bad? I'd take Ellis and Curry over Bargnani any day.

21. Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats

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    Brian A. Westerholt/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 18.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.1 bpg, .484% fg

     

    In the span of two seasons, Gerald Wallace went from averaging six rebounds per game to 10 rebounds per game. That's a tremendous improvement on the glass that the league has clearly taken notice of.

    At the same time, he has also seen his point total dip slightly, as well as his assists and steals.

    Wallace had a shot at making the Team USA squad this summer. But he was ultimately cut in favor of players like Andre Iguodala and Danny Granger because he did not have a clear role. He shot 37 percent from beyond the arc last season. Yet at times over the summer he reverted back to 2009 when he shot just 30 percent from deep.

    He's also not a true power forward, despite his prowess on the glass. He is clearly a small forward, and plays well off Stephen Jackson at the shooting guard.

    Still, Wallace is the man on the Bobcats and the player the team needs the most to stay in the playoff hunt. He's going to be fighting for an All-Star spot in the star-studded Eastern Conference. If the Bobcats do well, he would seemingly be a lock to make the squad.

20. Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 17.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.7 bpg, 44% fg

     

    He played power forward for Team USA in the summer, but in reality, Andre Iguodala is a big, athletic small forward. He also happens to be the second AI that is the franchise player in Philadelphia.

    As you can see from the statistics above, Iguodala is going to fill up the box score. That probably has as much to do with his talent as the fact that he's on one of the worst teams in the NBA, but that doesn't take away from what he can do on the court.

    He's big enough to back players down in the paint and he is a good enough shooter to keep his defender honest all the way to the three-point line. And he can slash to the basket. Basically, he's a poor man's LeBron James—minus the ridiculous explosiveness, plus some post moves.

    Evan Turner seems unlikely to challenge Iguodala for the franchise player distinction and Elton Brand is far past his prime. Still, those two guys make up a solid core around Iguodala and it could be the start of the rebuilding process in Philly.

19. Joe Johnson, Atlanta Hawks

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 21.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.1 spg, 46% fg

     

    Joe Johnson is definitely Atlanta's franchise player after the amount of money the team paid him in the offseason. As the highest-earning free agent in the notorious class of 2010, he's going to be expected to produce like he never has before.

    Problem is, he's either in the twilight of his prime or just past it, depending on how pro-Hawks a person feels. Personally, I think he's just past his prime, and I don't see his numbers getting a boost this season or in the future.

    He's going to score at least 20 points per game, sure. But how long can he produce at a 20-5-5 level? I'd give it two years maximum, but apparently the Hawks front office is thinking triple that.

    The other thing that worries me about Johnson is the number of three-pointers he shoots per game. He actually shot fewer on average last season than the previous few years, but I fear he will start to shoot the long ball as he starts to age. That could lower his field-goal percentage and, more importantly, his value to the team.

    When all is said and done though, Johnson will be a reserve on the Eastern Conference All-Star team this year.

18. Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 24.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.8 bpg, 43% fg

     

    Danny Granger is a wonderful player in the world of fantasy basketball, and he's not bad in real life either. He's clearly the star player on the Indiana Pacers, and he can only get better now that the pieces around him are improving.

    Darren Collison should do wonders for Granger by finding him around the three-point line or in transition for easier buckets than Granger is used to. Roy Hibbert, who is expected to have a breakout season this year, should also help give Granger a better opportunity to succeed.

    Granger made the All-Star team in 2009, and he's coming off a summer in which he played a small role on Team USA. Still, it says something about his skill-set that he made the team in the first place. He's dangerous from beyond the arc and is capable of going off in a short amount of time.

    Perhaps he does not go off as easily as Reggie Miller, but give it a few years and the comparisons could be there. Though I doubt Granger will ever develop Miller's swagger.

17. Rudy Gay, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 19.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.8 bpg, 47% fg

     

    Rudy Gay also made out like a bandit in this crazy offseason, re-signing with the Memphis Grizzlies very early in the free agency process. In doing so, he committed to being the face of a franchise that has never truly experienced success.

    Gay has been hovering around the same numbers for three seasons now, and at this point, with a new contract in hand, the Grizzlies are going to expect him to take that next step toward superstardom.

    He already got a small taste of that playing over the summer with Team USA, but he's going to have to carry over that confidence to this NBA season, like Derrick Rose—who proclaimed he considers himself a candidate for the MVP award.

    This season should mark the first time Gay makes an All-Star team, and it won't be his last.

16. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 20.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.4 bpg, 46% fg

     

    Simply put, Tyreke Evans was a one-man wrecking crew for the Sacramento Kings in his rookie season last year. It comes as no surprise that he won Rookie of the Year.

    From a sheer statistical standpoint, it's scary to imagine what more Evans can do on the basketball court. Just looking at the numbers, he could be the third-best point guard in the league behind Chris Paul and Deron Williams (if you don't consider Evans a shooting guard).

    Yet at the same time, he has to prove he can sustain this level of play for another season. He has no playoff experience, and additionally teams are going to plan their defensive schemes around stopping Evans.

    In a few seasons, it's quite possible Evans will be a top-10 franchise player, and maybe even a top-five player. As for now though, the young phenom needs to continue to play at a superstar level, and then maybe he can be like Derrick Rose and crack the All-Star lineup in his second season.

15. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 17.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.2 apg, 0.6 spg, 1.5 bpg, 52% fg

     

    Yes, Tim Duncan has probably passed his prime. He's getting old and his minutes are going to be limited this season.

    Still, would you honestly take anyone on the San Antonio Spurs ahead of the Big Fundamental if you had a choice? I don't think so.

    When push comes to shove, Duncan can still produce at a 20-10 level when he gets a lot of minutes. He still forces defenses to clamp down in the paint. He can still be an elite player in this league, and I don't see any reason why he won't be an All-Star again this year.

    The core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will still make a run in the Western Conference. The Spurs are a boring team, but that's because they're just always so good.

14. Brook Lopez, New Jersey Nets

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 18.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, 0.7 spg, 1.7 bpg, 50% fg

     

    In some ways, Brook Lopez is the next generation of Tim Duncan. He has that exceptional finesse near the rim, and yet is still young enough to be explosive. He's the clear-cut second-best center in the Eastern Conference, trailing only Dwight Howard, and he is arguably the second-best center in the entire league.

    The New Jersey Nets were unable to land any of the big free agents this offseason, but together with Devin Harris and possibly Derrick Favors, Lopez can be the centerpiece the Nets build around for years to come.

    His field-goal percentage, which is just a hair under 50 percent, will improve this season. He's going to easily average 20 points and 10 rebounds at least, en route to an obvious All-Star selection.

    What he can improve on is his passing. If he can become an elite passing big man, then the Nets have the potential to surprise a lot of people and vastly improve on one of the worst seasons in NBA history.

13. Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 21.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.7 apg, 0.9 spg, 47% fg

     

    Brandon Roy has been a little whiny out in Portland. But the Trail Blazers would be wise to heed his requests, because he's one of the best shooting guards in the business right now.

    In fact, at that position, I'd only take Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade over Roy. He can score, he can rebound and he can pass. His defense is acceptable. He shoots a high percentage thanks to a generally reliable shot and his knack for getting to the basket.

    Portland has been riddled with injuries as of late, which is unfortunate, because with Roy at the helm and LaMarcus Aldridge down low, the depth this team has when healthy is scary—like top of the Western Conference scary.

    Roy will make the All-Star team with ease, backing up Kobe Bryant until the Lakers star decides to hang up his shoes.

12. Amar'e Stoudemire, New York Knicks

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    Jason Merritt/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 23.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.0 apg, 0.6 spg, 1.0 bpg, 56% fg

     

    New York's prized free-agent acquisition seems a bit like a letdown after seeing franchise-changing players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade teamed up in Miami. And rightly so.

    Amar'e Stoudemire is one of the most athletic power forwards in the game. He was able to develop into a superstar thanks in part to Steve Nash diverting the attention of the opposition and freeing him up for easy opportunities. But as we have seen so far with the Knicks, he can still do quite well as the top option on a franchise.

    The problem with Amar'e is he's not a fantastic rebounder. Like Chris Bosh, he's athletic but doesn't have a large enough frame to compete with the legitimate centers in the NBA. It also doesn't help that he has faced several injuries throughout his career, which gives him the "fragile" label.

    With all that said, Stoudemire is going to make the All-Star team in the East, and he might even start at power forward. He has also given the Big Apple hope that the Knicks will return to the playoffs this season. Ultimately, it seems that fans hope his biggest contribution will be luring Carmelo Anthony or Chris Paul to New York as well.

11. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 16.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 11.0 apg, 0.5 spg, 51% fg

     

    And here's that Phoenix Suns player who ran with Amare Stoudemire for so many years!

    Steve Nash is getting older, but he still has to be considered one of the most game-changing players in the league. He still passes better than just about anyone and he can maneuver his way into the lane as well as drain treys when the opportunity arises. 

    Simply put, the Suns would not be the same team without Nash. Thus, he's their franchise, like Duncan to the Spurs.

    His 2010 stats show that he can still fill up the stat sheet. But again, it's the leadership and poise he brings when he steps onto the court that sets him apart from someone like Tyreke Evans or Monta Ellis.

    The two-time MVP has seen a dip in assists from last season through three games, and some of that might be attributable to the loss of Stoudemire. But by season's end, he should be at or near double digits once again.

10. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 13.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 9.8 apg, 2.3 spg, .51% fg

     

    Twenty-four assists in one game? Will he eventually break the assists record?

    The Celtics have a Big Three, but when it comes to their franchise player, there's only one—and it's Rajon Rondo. After the way Rondo carried himself in the playoffs last season and so far this season, there's no question about that.

    The guy is as fierce a competitor as they come, which naturally draws the hate of opposing fans across the country. For me, I'll never forget when he threw Kirk Hinrich into the scorer's table.

    Besides playing hard, he also led the NBA in steals last season with more than two per game. That comes in part because of the Celtics' great defense overall, but a lot has to do with his skills as well.

    He notched 17 assists in Boston's win over Miami and he's going to continue to do that all season long. He is also a fantastic rebounder for a guard, which is misleading considering he averaged just 4.4 per contest last year. He's more of a triple-double threat than arguably any other player in the Association.

    His only weakness, which is a big one, is his shooting. When he's out at the three-point line, his defender is 15 feet from the basket. Until he shows he can make a three, he's going to struggle putting up points on a consistent basis.

    Still, he's likely to be an All-Star this season, possibly a starter in the Eastern Conference.

9. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 20.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.0 apg, 0.7 spg, 0.3 bpg, 49% fg

     

    In his first two seasons in the Association, Derrick Rose carried the Chicago Bulls to back-to-back playoff appearances. That's a lot to ask from a rookie and a second-year player.

    Then again, he was Rookie of the Year in 2008-2009 and an All-Star in 2009-2010. So maybe that's not so hard to believe.

    Rose also earned the starting point guard position on Team USA this summer, and worked hard in the offseason to improve his game. Though he struggled from the field against the Thunder, he showed his new three-point stroke against the Pistons and tied his career high in points in the process.

    Rose is also becoming a better true point guard in terms of assists and running the offense. That was hard to do when Vinny Del Negro had a non-existent offensive scheme.

    Rose is going to take over in crucial situations rather than pass the ball. It's what great players do, and it is what Rose has to do.

    He's going to make the All-Star team this season, and it'll be him or Rondo who starts in the East. 

8. Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 28.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.4 bpg, 46% fg

     

    Basically, there's a reason why people keep talking about Carmelo Anthony's future. He's one of the top players in the NBA, and would easily be a franchise player on just about any team he goes to.

    Anthony's best attribute is his scoring. He was Kevin Durant before Kevin Durant. Don't expect a lot of hard-fought rebounds or nifty passing from him. But you can expect 40 points on any given night against any opponent.

    Best of all, he's a matchup nightmare. He can burn larger defenders with his jump shot, or punish smaller opponents by posting up. He can also slash to the hoop, though he's not quite as fast as LeBron James or other wings.

    With Durant in the West, Anthony might not manage a starting gig on the Western Conference All-Star team, though he probably should.

    Then again, who knows where he will be come February?

T-6. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 18.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 10.1 apg, 2.0 spg, 49% fg

     

    Chris Paul is universally considered one of the top two point guards in the NBA today, along with Deron WIlliams of the Utah Jazz. Paul suffered from injury last season, which dropped him from the clear-cut top spot.

    Still, it's hard to argue with what he does on the court.

    Paul is one of the best defenders in the game from the point, and he is always among the league leaders in steals. He is athletic and he can drive to the hoop at nearly the same efficiency as Rose, while he also has a jump shot that forces opponents to play close to him.

    Though he battled injuries, he's young and will likely come back strong. He's going to be the face of a franchise for a long time to come, assuming he does not head to New York with Carmelo and Amar'e. 

    Yet even if he does, he should still be considered the face of the franchise.

T-6. Deron Williams, Utah Jazz

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 18.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 10.5 apg, 1.3 spg, 47% fg

     

    It's borderline scary how close Deron Williams' stats are to Chris Paul's. Same average point and rebounds, nearly the same assists, and each stealing the ball with proficiency.

    Yet, it seems like Paul stands out more than Williams does. And to some extent, that's true. Williams is less flashy than Paul but achieves equal results, which is something people started to notice once Paul sat out last year.

    Williams is about as durable as you can hope for a point guard to be, only missing a few games since entering the league. He has been the foundation for the continued success of the Jazz, even when players like Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirikenko succumbed to injuries.

    If Williams and Paul remain healthy throughout this season, it should be interesting to see which one gets the nod to start at the All-Star game and which finishes the season with better stats. Both stars are acclimating to revamped rosters, though Williams is likely to make the playoffs while Paul will have to will his team there.

5. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 25.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.7 apg, 0.9 spg, 1.0 bpg, 48% fg

     

    Often imitated, but not yet duplicated, Dirk Nowitzki is the prototype for a foreign big man who can do it all on the basketball court.

    Nowitzki is still a prolific scorer who can torch the right opponent for 40 points. Unlike Stoudemire and Bosh, Dirk can battle down low if he needs to, though his low rebounding numbers stem in part from his ability to stretch defenses.

    He's not a bad defender either, usually because he is either quicker than the big men he's matched up against or bigger than the smaller opponents he is assigned to guard. Again, he's a major problem for opposing coaches.

    Nowitzki is getting older and he probably missed out on his best chance to win a title in 2006. Still, he's the best player on the Mavericks and one of the top superstars in the Association. He's a shoe-in to start in the All-Star game. And he's got a good shot to take the Mavericks far in the playoffs, since the Western Conference is wide open.

4. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 30.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.0 bpg, 48% fg

     

    Kevin Durant is the NBA's favorite son right now. No past history with rape allegations (Kobe), no "Decision" to decimate Cleveland (LeBron), no custody battles (Dwyane), no silly antics (Dwight). 

    No, Durant is a humble superstar who loves Oklahoma City. The Thunder are building a team around him that experts are hoping (I mean predicting) will win a lot this season.

    Still, to consider him the best player in the NBA is far-fetched. He's really, really good, but some of the established stars who have been around for several years are better offensively and defensively.

    Durant's main attribute right now is that he can score seemingly at will. He led the NBA in scoring in just his second season, which is certainly something to get excited about. All indications are that he will do that again this season, or at least come close.

    Yet, as his statistics indicate, he does much more than that. He rebounds surprisingly well and also disrupts the opposition on the defensive end. Like Nowitzki, many of his steals and blocks come from being such a tough player to match up against.

    Durant should be the starting small forward for the West in the All-Star game, and the Thunder should be at least a top-four team in the conference.

3. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 18.3 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.9 spg, 2.8 bpg, 61% fg

     

    Dwight Howard is, without question, the best center in the NBA today. I'd argue that he's going to be the best center in the NBA for several more years as well, before anyone even comes close to his level of dominance.

    He also has the opportunity to win many more Defensive Player of the Year awards if he stays healthy, and if he stays committed to the defensive side of the ball.

    Yet, what's the scariest part about Howard's game is that he seems to have become a better all-around offensive player as well. Before, it was relatively easy to guard Howard—just make sure he didn't get too close to the basket.

    Now he has a Tim Duncan-like bank shot and he has a jump hook. Those two moves alone could propel him to 25 points per game. And if he can do that with reliability, look out.

    The only thing keeping Howard back is his position. Ultimately, big men can't win on their own, but wing players can. Shaq always needed Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade, for example. When the Magic made it to the NBA Finals, Hedo Turkoglu made several clutch shots, not Howard.

    Overall though, Howard might be the biggest athletic freak in the NBA, even more than LeBron James. He will almost surely be an All-Star for at least 10 more years, and he should lead the Magic to the Finals again.

2b. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

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    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 26.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 6.5 apg, 1.8 spg, 1.1 bpg, 48% fg

     

    When selecting the franchise player on the super-team down in Miami, it was easy to eliminate Chris Bosh.

    But choosing between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade? Two of the top three players in the world? That's just impossible.

    So Wade gets the 2b ranking. James might not be as clutch as Wade, but he can single-handedly will a team to 60 wins, while for Wade that number is more like 45 or 47.

    Still, looking at Wade's stats, it's clear why he's one of the best in the game. He's a fantastic scorer and yet he distributes the ball as well as a point guard. He's strong, so he can rebound with players several inches taller than himself. And he's fast, so he can break up passing lanes and block shots on the fast break.

    Wade is 28, which some people are concerned about. That's laughable. Sure Wade has taken a beating throughout his career, but now that he and LeBron are teamed up, he has likely extended his prime by a few more seasons.

    It's ridiculous to think that two of the elite, franchise players are on one team. Hence why the Heat are already considered favorites to win the title.

2a. LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 29.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 8.6 apg, 1.6 spg, 1.0 bpg, 50% fg

     

    LeBron James is basically unstoppable. Unless Dwight Howard and Chris Paul merge into one player, no player on the planet has the combination of foot speed and strength needed to shut down the King.

    That's probably the reason people were so confused and upset about his decision to join the Miami Heat. He should be the unquestioned leader on whichever team he is on. Miami is Wade's team. For now.

    Still, after watching James take over against the Boston Celtics—and as Bill Simmons said in his recent column—James is going to have to be "the man" on this team if the Heat want to win.

    Why? Because he is the franchise player. Without Wade in the lineup, James and Bosh are still the best one-two punch in the Eastern Conference, and arguably the league. Without James, Wade and Bosh don't have that same feel of dominance. 

    The stats speak for themselves. In 2010, James averaged somewhat close to a triple-double despite playing without a supporting cast. He was also within a point of Kevin Durant and the scoring title.

    That's what dominance looks like. No one in the game today can match James in terms of overall talent. He's going to be an All-Star as long as he's in the NBA, no matter how much people hate him.

    So why is he not No. 1? There's one player who has a will to win that exceeds James' talent level.

1. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    2010 stats: 27.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.0 apg, 1.5 spg, 46% fg

     

    Yes indeed, no matter how many years Kobe Bryant has played in the NBA, how much people talk about his age—he's still the player you want on your franchise for the next few seasons.

    As I mentioned, Kobe has a will to win that is not matched by any player in the league today. The fact that he's doing commercials for NBA 2K11 and discussing Michael Jordan only further show the similarities between the two of them.

    There's a reason Bryant has won five championships, and no, it's not because of Shaquille O'Neal or Phil Jackson. It's because he's a big-time player.

    Sure, his numbers are not as good as James'. But they are not that far off, and he's had support from his teammates so he hasn't had to do it all. This is the guy that went off for 81 points in a single game. So if you think he can't score anymore, think again.

    His intelligence and his dedication to the game make him great. James and Wade make their teammates better just because they attract the attention of the defense when they slash to the hoop. Kobe makes his teammates better through instruction and teaching. He doesn't just make them better on one particular play, he makes them a permanently smarter and better player.

    Kobe, like Jordan, will still be highly effective even as his loses some of his athletic ability. He will be an All-Star for the rest of his career. Oh, and his Lakers are still a favorite to come out of the Western Conference and three-peat. Kobe obviously plays a large part in those predictions.