Top 5 NBA Players at Every Position So Far

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 25, 2014

Top 5 NBA Players at Every Position So Far

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    What happened before the 2014-15 NBA season doesn't matter whatsoever in these rankings. Neither does potential, and inevitable regressions to the mean are ultimately irrelevant for these purposes. 

    It's all about what's come to pass during the early portion of the current campaign, as we're curious about how the Association's best and brightest at each and every position stack up so far. That two-word phrase is undeniably key; it forces the focus to remain solely on the present and the last few weeks.  

    These rankings will ultimately look quite different by the end of the year, but it's interesting that it's taken such a short time for the established cream to rise to the top. Even without previous seasons factoring into the analysis, the players who have tended to populate the premier spots in past rankings have already largely jumped up into the discussion for the No. 1 spots. 

    They're the ones who have helped their teams out the most, not necessarily by being the best players on the best teams, but by making the biggest difference when they're on the court. These players have produced in volume, but they've also maintained impressive levels of efficiency. And they've tended to have a positive impact on both ends of the court. 

    Big names who score in bulk but don't necessarily help out their teams (see: Bryant, Kobe) will not be given more credit for glamorous production.

    It's all about what actually helps squads win games. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of Nov. 26. This article will reference box plus-minus numbers in many instances, which indicate a player's performance as compared to the league-average level of production. You can find a full explanation here, but it's worth noting "0.0 is league average, +5 means the player is 5 points better than an average player over 100 possessions (which is about All-NBA level), -2 is replacement level and -5 is really bad."

No. 5 PG: John Wall

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    Team: Washington Wizards

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 9.4 assists, 2.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 21.5 PER

    John Wall is getting dangerously close to the cutoffs for a 20/10 season, averaging 19.5 points and 9.4 assists per game during his first 13 outings. And over his past six, he's actually made it into the club, putting up 20.2 points and 10.2 dimes during the average contest for his Washington Wizards. 

    Although the Kentucky product's jumper still isn't connecting with any sort of frequency from outside the arc, he's remained a highly productive player on both sides of the court. That's been the true key for Wall, as he's continued his development into a ferocious defender, one who's leading the league in steals per game and still managing to remain quite disciplined night in and night out. 

    Wall's defensive box plus-minus (DBPM) of 1.5 isn't a truly elite number, indicating that he allows 1.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than a league-average player would in his situation, but it should be quite telling that the Wizards allow 22.7 fewer points over the same span when he's on the floor.

    That's a monumental difference, one that begins to show just how effective Wall has become on the less-glamorous end of the court. 

    Honorable Mentions: Kyrie Irving, Ty LawsonDeron Williams

No. 4 PG: Damian Lillard

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    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.1 blocks, 22.7 PER

    Though Damian Lillard has been more careless with the ball than ever before and isn't scoring with quite the same frequency he did during his sophomore season, he's becoming a better point guard. His rebounding is reaching new levels, he's been a more effective passer than he was as a freshman or sophomore with the Portland Trail Blazers and he's finally become a decent defensive player. 

    With a minus-2.2 DBPM during his rookie season and a minus-1.6 in his follow-up campaign, Lillard was a hindrance on the point-preventing end. But now that number has risen to 1.2, and Lillard's defensive work is finally passing the eye test. 

    LaMarcus Aldridge recognized the difference right after the season opener, per The Oregonian's Jason Quick:

    He's worked on it all preseason. He has showed people that he is definitely trying to be better defensively, and he's given better effort. I think everybody is seeing that the effort is there. It's just different when you go from being a scorer to learning how to do both. It just takes time. But he has always been an overly competitive guy who wants to do well on both ends.

    Lillard still experienced some struggles early in the season, but he's rebounded nicely both offensively and defensively. The latter is the biggest key for his continued improvement, and while he might never be a stalwart on the less-glamorous end, he's shown signs that he can at least avoid being a huge liability. 

No. 3 PG: Kyle Lowry

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    Team: Toronto Raptors

    Age: 28

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 22.9 PER

    There's no reason to be worried about Kyle Lowry in a post-contract year. 

    Against the Memphis Grizzlies, he completed an 18-point, seven-assist night with a step-back jumper that sealed the game. Five days later, he refused to succumb to a slow offensive game and forced a jump ball when Isaiah Thomas attempted a crossover, one that helped him cement a victory for his Toronto Raptors. 

    The 2014-15 season has been filled with one great play after another from this particular point guard. Lowry has lived up to his reputation as a bulldog on both ends of the court, doing his darnedest to shut down opposing floor generals while providing Toronto with some efficient offense. 

    Although the 28-year-old hasn't seen his shot fall from beyond the arc all that often, he's been getting to the free-throw line with frequency and is dominating from two-point zones.

    Thus far, Lowry is actually hitting 54.5 percent of his looks from inside the arc, especially notable because his previous career high was the 48.8 percent he hit all the way back in 2008-09, when he split time with the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets. 

    If that's sustainable, Lowry won't fall back down the rankings. But if he regresses to the mean, it may be hard for him to remain near the top of the heap. 

No. 2 PG: Chris Paul

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 9.9 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.5 blocks, 27.5 PER

    The Los Angeles Clippers have floundered their way through the opening portion of the 2014-15 season, playing to an 8-5 record that hasn't allowed them to seem nearly as dominant as expected heading into the year. But it's hard to pin the blame on Chris Paul since he's continued to play fantastic all-around basketball, even blocking shots at a rate previously unseen from this 29-year-old point guard. 

    Through 13 games, Paul is actually the league's No. 2 player in offensive box plus-minus (OBPM), providing LAC with 7.5 more points per 100 possessions on the offensive end than a league-average player might in that situation. He's shooting 51.7 percent from the field, knocking down 40 percent of his three-point attempts and connecting on 84 percent of his freebies, putting him within striking distance of the 50-40-90 club. 

    But despite doing some quality work on the boards and posting almost a dollar's worth of dimes during the average outing, Paul still hasn't been perfect. And that's because he's struggled a bit on defense. 

    The Clippers have been markedly worse at preventing points when he's on the floor, and he's been particularly slow when closing out against dangerous shooters. As a whole, the team has looked sluggish, and Paul hasn't stood out as an exception. 

No. 1 PG: Stephen Curry

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 27.4 PER

    All of a sudden, Stephen Curry has morphed into a positive contributor on the defensive side. 

    Under Steve Kerr, he's gambling for steals at opportune times, staying in front of his man and guiding his mark into the correct positions on the court. If he's supposed to push someone to his right and into a trap, he's actually doing so this season.

    Curry's 1.9 DBPM has helped him have the top box plus-minus (BPM) in the NBA during the early portion of the season, and the Golden State Warriors have allowed 9.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. 

    Of course, he's also been a dominant offensive player, even leading the league in OBPM. The defense is just gravy except it's been a tasty enough topping that it might as well be considered the meat-and-potatoes portion of the meal. 

    Curry has uncharacteristically struggled from beyond the arc, "only" hitting 38.9 percent of his 7.5 attempts per game prior to his 8-of-11 outing against the Miami Heat. Side note: You know you're a dominant shooter when 38.9 percent from three-point range represents a season filled with early struggles. But he's made up for the decrease in efficiency by drilling 93.3 percent of his free-throw attempts and hitting a career-best 53.8 percent of his shots from two-point range.

    Plus, that dominance of the Heat allowed his three-point numbers to rise to 42.6 percent shooting on 7.8 attempts per game, and he now leads the league in both attempts and makes.

    It's all been enough to give him a 63.6 true shooting percentage, which beats out the mark he set in 2013-14 as the best of his still-young NBA tenure. 

No. 5 SG: Monta Ellis

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    Team: Dallas Mavericks

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 19.7 PER

    Even if his defense—or lack thereof—isn't worth giving anything more than a cursory mention, Monta Ellis is having the best season of his career. 

    His 19.7 player efficiency rating is the high-water mark of his time in the NBA, and it's largely due to his well-rounded offensive play and improved shooting, both in terms of accuracy and shot selection. Ellis is hitting 33.3 percent of his shots from downtown, an improvement from him, and he's been unbelievably effective when driving to the hoop. 

    According to NBA.com's SportVU data, Ty Lawson is the only player who has driven more this season. But as opposed to Lawson's sub-40 percent shooting on those plays, Ellis is knocking down 51.2 percent of his attempts. And things get even better when you factor in his passing. 

    Lawson, thanks to his fantastic facilitation for the Denver Nuggets, is leading the league by creating 16 points per game when he drives to the hoop. Reggie Jackson, with 14.6, is coming in at No. 2. It's Ellis in third place, contributing 13.3 points per game on drives, and he's done so in remarkably efficient fashion. 

    Kudos to Rick Carlisle for finally getting Ellis to play to his strengths each and every night—each and every possession for that matter. 

    Honorable Mentions: Kobe Bryant, DeMar DeRozan, Joe Johnson

No. 4 SG: Dwyane Wade

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Age: 32

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks, 24.1 PER

    Dwyane Wade continues to be a remarkably efficient shooting guard, draining over half his shots from the field and putting up some of the best distance numbers ever produced during his exemplary career. He's not getting to the charity stripe as frequently as he has in the past, and he's taken more of a backseat as a scorer. But he's made up for that with other types of production. 

    His passing, for example, has been superior. 

    Wade is averaging 6.4 assists per game for a Miami team that likes to slow things down as much as humanly possible. His assist percentage of 41.3 percent is actually the highest mark of his career, barely beating out the work he did in 2006-07, one year after winning Finals MVP. 

    As you might expect, it's not on the offensive end where Wade's biggest flaws come into play.

    He's posting a negative DPBM for the second time since he first joined the Miami Heat as a fresh-faced rookie out of Marquette, barely exerting passable levels of effort on that side of the ball. Plus, he's had trouble staying on the court. 

    Wade has been limited to only eight games by a tight hamstring that he's rested for precautionary reasons. The maintenance plan for his knees hasn't needed to kick in, and he's looked quite healthy when he's on the floor. But this shooting guard is still an old 32-year-old, and it shows when he has to dress up in a suit and tie rather than a jersey. 

No. 3 SG: Jimmy Butler

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    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.6 points, 6.1rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 22.6 PER

    "The Bulls are going through a brutal early-season road stretch..." Sam Amick wrote for USA Today prior to the Chicago Bulls' game against the Utah Jazz. "If they're going to survive, Butler is going to be leading the way. He's putting up All-Star caliber numbers to this point (20.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals a game) while looking like a front-runner for the league's Most Improved Player Award."

    During that outing versus the surprisingly competitive Western Conference squad, Butler dropped 25 points and made plenty of big plays down the stretch. It prompted Bleacher Report's John Wilmes to pen the following: 

    Like the player the Bulls targeted and missed out on this summer—Carmelo Anthony—Butler is getting buckets in a style that exceeds mere marksmanship. Boasting a devastating pump fake and sly off-the-ball movement, Jimmy is now looking like a schematic ace.

    He’s also much stronger than most players assigned to guard him and increasingly shrewd with his recognition of mismatches. His 7.1 free-throw attempts per contest—good for sixth in the league—are proof in that regard.

    The breakout so many foresaw last season is finally happening, and it continued on Tuesday night with 32 points and nine boards on 7-of-13 shooting from the field. Butler has become an offensive ace while remaining one of the more effective defenders at his position. 

No. 2 SG: Klay Thompson

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.8 blocks, 21.6 PER

    Klay Thompson has cooled down after his blazing start to the 2014-15 season, but he's still showing quite a few signs of massive improvement, improvement that has allowed him to assert himself as one of the league's premier two-way players. 

    The 24-year-old 2-guard has always been an effective defender, but he's been utterly reliant on setup passes from his teammates on the Golden State Warriors in the past.

    Not anymore. 

    Only 53.2 percent of his two-point makes have been assisted during the 2014-15 campaign, down from 62.2 percent last year and 75.1 the season before. When he's connected from beyond the arc, he's only required a dime 90.9 percent of the time. That might sound like a lot, but it represents improvement in shot-creating abilities from 2013-14, when 94.6 percent of his triples were assisted.

    Perhaps even more notable is his improvement as a passer after a year of complete stagnation. Distributing is important for any shooting guard in a movement-heavy offense, and Thompson's strides as a passer have allowed him to take on more responsibility in Steve Kerr's schemes.  

No. 1 SG: James Harden

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 24.6 PER

    James Harden's 40.1 field-goal percentage may be the second-most-misleading stat in the NBA this season, trailing only Kobe Bryant's per-game scoring average. After all, Harden has been an unbelievably efficient scorer, thanks to taking and making plenty of triples as well as his near-constant presence at the free-throw line.

    Take a look at Harden compared to two other volume scorers—Bryant and DeMar DeRozan, both of whom only earned honorable mentions: 

    PlayerPPG FG%3PA3P%FTAFT%TS%
    James Harden25.240.16.934.010.090.058.1
    Kobe Bryant26.738.16.127.98.579.048.2
    DeMar DeRozan 20.240.00.915.48.280.949.5

    Field-goal percentage is almost completely irrelevant, as it doesn't differentiate between types of shots or take free-throw shooting into account. Harden's true shooting percentage blows the other 2-guards' numbers out of the water and puts him in pretty elite company, especially for someone who scores this frequently. But let's look at it one more way. 

    PlayerPPGPoints per Shot
    James Harden25.21.457
    Kobe Bryant26.71.113
    DeMar DeRozan 20.21.202

    That right there would be why Harden is a vastly superior scorer. And now that he's actually playing defense, even leading the league in defensive win shares, that's why he's a vastly superior shooting guard as well. 

No. 5 SF: Tobias Harris

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    Team: Orlando Magic

    Age: 22

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.7 blocks, 18.0 PER

    Small forward has been surprisingly thin during the 2014-15 season, with plenty of prominent names struggling and Kevin Durant failing to even step on a court while wearing a uniform thus far. That's opened the door for a new name to appear, and Tobias Harris has walked right across the threshold. 

    Not only has Harris been a tremendous threat on the boards for the Orlando Magic, who have remained competitive in some of their games even if their overall record isn't particularly impressive, but he's also managed to improve in so many other areas. 

    Harris is shooting 41.2 percent from three despite taking more deep looks than ever before. He's truly become a featured player in the Orlando offense, and the task hasn't overwhelmed him whatsoever. That's rather impressive for a 22-year-old on a team that doesn't boast too many defense-drawing scorers. 

    Plus, for the first time in his career, he's been an asset on defense. Harris has a 0.3 DBPM—the only positive mark of his tenure with Orlando—and his team has allowed 5.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. 

    Honorable Mentions: Nicolas Batum, Luol Deng, Kawhi Leonard

No. 4 SF: Carmelo Anthony

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    Team: New York Knicks

    Age: 30

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks, 22.1 PER

    Between back spasms and knee issues, Carmelo Anthony quite clearly hasn't been at 100 percent during the 2014-15 season. 

    Nonetheless, he's soldiered on through the maladies and remained a highly effective player while learning a new system, even if his team has struggled and he hasn't been able to make as well-rounded an impact as he provided during his career year last season. Anthony is still proving himself an incredible scorer, and he's producing one of the highest assist percentages of his career. But his rebounding and defense have both regressed. 

    Anthony's minus-3.0 DBPM is rather easily the worst mark of his career, and his work on that end of the floor has negated some of the offensive production he can put up while reeling from injuries. Playing on both sides of the ball is crucial for a position typically defined by versatility, even if Anthony's scoring exploits mitigate much of the damage done by his lackluster defense. 

    Now we just have to figure out how much of a lasting concern the piling-up injuries will end up being. It wouldn't be all that surprising if the New York Knicks shut down their superstar for a little while, given the overall futility of their efforts this season. 

No. 3 SF: Rudy Gay

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    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Age: 28

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.5 blocks, 20.1 PER

    Rudy Gay is finally playing basketball the right way. 

    He's no longer jacking up contested jumpers and trying to do the majority of his damage from a different ZIP code. Instead, he's posting his man up and using his size to his advantage. He's passing the ball quite well and taking a backseat when a backseat should be taken. As a result, he's no longer making his team worse, as he did when he was still on the Toronto Raptors roster. 

    The impact he's had is huge

    When Gay is on the bench, the Sacramento Kings have scored 98.7 points per 100 possessions, which would give them the third-worst offensive rating in the league, better than only the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers. Plus, they're allowing 118.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the pine, which would be worse than the Los Angeles Lakers' mark as well as every other team's in the Association. 

    Think about that combination: No. 28 in offensive efficiency and dead last in defensive efficiency isn't exactly a good thing. 

    But when Gay plays, the offensive rating skyrockets to 111.3—the No. 5 mark in the NBA. Simultaneously, the defensive rating plummets to 100.9, which is worse than only the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies. All of a sudden, the Kings are in the top five for both categories. 

    How's that for valuable? 

No. 2 SF: Gordon Hayward

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    Team: Utah Jazz

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 20.8 PER

    Gordon Hayward has been absolutely magnificent for the Utah Jazz this season, whether he's outshining LeBron James in a head-to-head battle or carrying the offensive load for his team while facing a different opponent. While he struggled last year with the responsibilities of a No. 1 option, he's excelled in that very same role one season later. 

    The 24-year-old is shooting 46.2 percent from the field and making 34.8 percent of his three-point attempts, both marked improvements from last year's shooting futility. But he's also attacking the hoop with more ferocity and working his way to the free-throw line for easy points, and that's allowed his true shooting percentage to skyrocket from 52 to 59, all while coupled with an even higher usage rate. 

    "I've definitely noticed an all-around difference in my game as a result of the work I put in this offseason. I can see and feel things on the court that are different. My ball-handling has been a lot better, and I feel so much stronger. That was a big part being able to matchup up with LeBron," Hayward wrote on his website

    But so too is his strength, as he explicitly said just afterward: "He can't bully me as much as he used to, and I'm able to stand my ground against him. That's going to be huge against a lot of the bigger threes that I'll be playing since I've been playing a little bit more small forward this year. To see the work I’ve put in paying off like that, it makes me work even harder."

    So far, that hard work has paid large dividends. 

No. 1 SF: LeBron James

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    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks, 24.2 PER

    LeBron James has struggled during the 2014-15 season. 

    He hasn't been a vocal leader for the Cleveland Cavaliers, allowing them to flounder during the start of their Big Three era. He's had trouble connecting with his shot in some games, and he isn't finishing plays around the basket with dunks, allowing concerns about declining athleticism to creep into conversations. He's been undeniably lazy on defense, exerting little effort on some possessions and failing to justify any hype about his two-way play. 

    And he's still been the best small forward in the league with room to spare. 

    James has by no means played at an MVP level during his return to the Cavs, but he's still putting up some remarkable numbers and living off his natural talent and the hard-earned improvement from his tenure with the Miami Heat. That 24.2 PER is impressive, as are all of his numbers, even if they're not the godly ones we've become so accustomed to seeing. 

    There's still plenty of room for improvement, but claiming that James hasn't been the top player at his position thus far is objectively incorrect. 

No. 5 PF: Greg Monroe

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    Team: Detroit Pistons

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 15.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, 19.2 PER

    The whole qualifying-offer decision has worked out rather nicely for Greg Monroe. 

    Though his future is still up in the air, he's thrived for the Detroit Pistons, even if those around him have largely floundered. Josh Smith is still playing basketball with little to no value, Andre Drummond has struggled on the offensive end of the court and even improvement from Brandon Jennings hasn't helped this team win more than three of its first 13 games. 

    However, Monroe can't be held responsible. 

    Largely starting games under Stan Van Gundy, he's been a double-double threat each and every night, created opportunities with his passing and scored quite efficiently, especially now that his free-throw percentage has risen from respectable to admirable territory.

    Plus, he's playing solid defense, even if he doesn't often get credit as a quality defender. Monroe still isn't a rim-protecting asset, as he has limited athleticism that doesn't allow him to combat every shot around the basket, but he's done nice work rotating and playing help defense, both of which have allowed the Detroit unit to be better at preventing points when he's on the floor by a rather significant margin.

    Honorable Mentions: Tim Duncan, Derrick Favors, Zach Randolph

No. 4 PF: Pau Gasol

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    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Age: 34

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.3 blocks, 22.0 PER

    Though a calf injury has limited Pau Gasol and forced him to miss games during his inaugural season with the Chicago Bulls, he's been quite valuable whenever he's on the floor. An efficient scorer who's dominated on the boards and surely pleased Tom Thibodeau with his defensive effort, the Spanish big man hasn't really given anyone much to complain about. 

    And as James Herbert writes for CBSSports.com, he and Joakim Noah have meshed together rather nicely: 

    Since the season started, what's stood out has been how Gasol has protected the paint. Noah thinks he's underrated on that end of the floor, and the Bulls have been using his length to their advantage.

    There's no other big-man tandem in the league, and perhaps ever, who can pass like Noah and Gasol. While their personalities are different -- one's an ebullient hippie, the other a neighborly diplomat -- it was always easy to imagine them meshing. Gasol feels like there hasn't been much of a transition.

    If Gasol has been this good, this soon in his new digs, it's a bit terrifying to think of how he'll look once he's finished gaining comfort next to all the new pieces. Plus, there's bound to eventually be some continuity in the Chicago starting five, as injuries surely can't plague the team throughout the year. 

    The Gasol acquisition has already been hugely impactful, and it's left no doubt this particular big man hasn't declined as much as was previously thought when he was unmotivated and on a struggling Los Angeles Lakers team. 

No. 3 PF: LaMarcus Aldridge

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    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.2 blocks, 23.7 PER

    Though LaMarcus Aldridge hasn't rebounded nearly as well as he did in 2013-14, he's still becoming a more effective player. He's improved on the defensive end of the floor, gaining comfort being left alone in the middle of Terry Stotts' schemes. Plus, he's become an even more deadly scorer. 

    No longer does he have to rely almost solely on that mid-range jumper, which is remarkably effective but still one of the most inefficient shot types in basketball. Instead, he's getting to the charity stripe more frequently and expanding his range. 

    On the surface level, it appears as though Aldridge is actually spending less time at the free-throw line. But that's the result of diminished playing time that will keep him fresh throughout the year. His free-throw rate, which shows the number of free throws taken per field-goal attempt, has risen from 0.253 to 0.275. 

    And as for his three-point shooting, Aldridge has knocked down 53.3 percent of his downtown looks while taking 1.2 per game. He's picking and choosing his spots wisely, and the results have been quite impressive. Already, Aldridge has hit eight triples, which is a new career high. 

No. 2 PF: Dirk Nowitzki

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    Team: Dallas Mavericks

    Age: [Withheld because it's apparently irrelevant]

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.6 blocks, 24.9 PER

    At what point are we going to start giving Dirk Nowitzki the same treatment we've handed Tim Duncan for years? When will we start revering his ability to turn back the clock and prevent Father Time from forcing him into an age-related decline?

    The future Hall of Famer is now in his 17th season, and he's still going strong. His shooting percentages in particular are ridiculously impressive, as he's now hitting 51.7 percent of his shots from the field, 42.9 percent of his looks from beyond the arc and 84.6 percent of his attempts at the free-throw line. 

    It all combines to produce a true shooting percentage of 62, which is—amazingly—the single-best mark of his legendary career, bar none. And that's coming off a 2013-14 campaign in which he had a 60.3 true shooting percentage, breaking past the 60 percent barrier for only the fourth time during his longstanding tenure with the Dallas Mavericks. 

    Though he's struggling defensively and hasn't pulled in too many rebounds—thanks, Tyson Chandler and the Mavs' ridiculous shooting percentages—he's been so valuable to his team because he doesn't understand the simple concept of missing shots.

No. 1 PF: Anthony Davis

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    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Age: 21

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 2.1 steals, 3.4 blocks, 34.5 PER

    This is about as obvious as it gets. 

    As of now, Anthony Davis, fresh off a career-best 43-point outburst, trails only Kobe Bryant on the scoring ladder, though he's putting up his points in remarkably efficient and seemingly effortless fashion. He's also ranked No. 7 in rebounds per game, No. 5 in steals per game and No. 1 in blocks per game.

    Talk about a well-rounded game. 

    How impressive has Davis been for a .500 New Orleans Pelicans team that finds itself in the hunt for a playoff spot? He's arguably on pace to have the greatest individual season in NBA history based on a number of advanced metrics. 

    While serving as a featured player and playing some impressive defense, he's posted a 34.5 PER, one that would shatter Wilt Chamberlain's all-time record. The use of "shatter" is by no means hyperbolic, as Chamberlain's record is the 31.82 PER he produced in 1962-63 for the San Francisco Warriors.

    On top of that, Davis has earned 0.317 win shares per 48 minutes, which would leave him trailing only eight seasons in NBA history, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 1970-71 go-round with the Milwaukee Bucks.

    The fact that he's only 21 years old and is already producing like the No. 1 player in the NBA is insanely, mind-bogglingly, crazily, ridiculously, jaw-droppingly, brain-numbingly impressive. 

No. 5 C: Nikola Vucevic

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Orlando Magic

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.0 blocks, 21.3 PER

    Nikola Vucevic has taken to his featured role with the Orlando Magic rather nicely. 

    He's perfectly content carrying a heavy offensive burden, operating out of the post with aplomb and performing rather well from mid-range areas of the half-court set. Vucevic is knocking down 45.7 percent of his attempts from between 10 and 16 feet as well as 49.1 percent from between 16 feet and the three-point arc.

    But scoring isn't even the best part of his game.

    Neither is defense, though he's shown growth in that area and should continue getting better as he gains even more experience guarding NBA-caliber bigs. His speciality still has to be rebounding.

    Only DeMarcus Cousins has pulled in more rebounds per game than the USC product who's averaging 12.2 during the average contest. Granted, Vucevic has spent more time on the floor than the Sacramento Kings man, but if you have to trail any player in the category, he's not a particularly bad option. 

    Honorable Mentions: Andrew Bogut, Al Horford, Al Jefferson

No. 4 C: Chris Bosh

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Age: 30

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 blocks, 22.6 PER

    Apparently there's no need to be worried about Chris Bosh filling in the lead role now that Dwyane Wade has continued aging and LeBron James has departed for his hometown squad. He's been perfectly comfortable serving as the Miami Heat's alpha dog.

    "While Bosh is scoring more frequently this season, it’s come at the expense of efficiency," Tom Sunnergren writes for Bleacher Report. "His 56.2 true shooting percentage, per Basketball-Reference.com, is 3.5 percentage points below last season’s 59.7 figure and, if it persists, would be the second-lowest mark he’s posted since 2004-05—his second season in the NBA."

    But that's understandable, given the burden he's been asked to carry.  

    It's also worth noting that Bosh has improved in other areas. His 8.8 rebounds per game are the most he's recorded since joining the Heat, and his 15.7 total rebounding percentage beats out all but two seasons during his time with the Toronto Raptors, as well as each campaign in South Beach. That's been quite valuable for Miami, as has his defense. 

    Bosh is by no means a standout, but he's an adequate stopper who allows perimeter players to stay on their assignments and not need to double down on his man. 

No. 3 C: Dwight Howard

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Age: 28

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.3 blocks, 20.2 PER

    The Orlando Magic version of Dwight Howard appears to be back, though a strained right knee has prevented him from playing for the Houston Rockets over the last week.

    When he's on the floor, the potent Houston defense has gotten even better. It allows an impressive 102.6 points per 100 possessions with the big man resting on the bench or wearing street clothes, but that number drops to 93.9 when Howard takes the court. He's continued to serve as a ridiculously good pick-and-roll defender, and his rim-protecting skills are reminiscent of his Defensive Player of the Year days.  

    And the offense is affected to the same extent. 

    Without Howard, the Rockets score 99.4 points per 100 possessions, which would be the third-worst mark in the league, better than only the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers. But when Howard is serving as a roll threat and dunking the ball with ferocity, Houston ups that number to 108, which would give it the NBA's No. 9 offensive rating.

    He's still not a fan favorite, and his image hasn't recovered from the Dwightmare free-agency sagas. But since when did that affect what he's doing on the court?  

No. 2 C: Marc Gasol

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    Team: Memphis Grizzlies

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.5 blocks, 22.7 PER

    It's time for Marc Gasol to be thought of as an MVP candidate, as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale says:

    When he's on the floor, the Grizzlies run the equivalent of a top-three defense and top-five offense. Their assist rate climbs exponentially, as does their field-goal percentage overall and from outside the arc. When he's off the floor, though, they field a top-eight defense and top-10 offense, which is simultaneously impressive and a testament to Gasol's impact.

    And, for the moment, that's left him part of the MVP conversation.  

    There's basically nothing that the younger Gasol does poorly, especially now that he's become a decent rebounder and a significant scoring threat for the surging Memphis Grizzlies. He's always been a distributing maestro and a defensive mastermind, and now his game has become more complete than ever while helping a pretty dominant squad. 

    "Gasol is emphasizing scoring. The callous person says, 'contract year.' But it's benefiting everybody. The team-wide benefit is stuffed in every box score," ESPN.com's John Cregan explains. "Courtney Lee: career year. Zach Randolph: best fantasy numbers in years."

    The big man has always been a no-stats All-Star. Now he's one of those, and he's putting up terrific numbers. 

No. 1 C: DeMarcus Cousins

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    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.4 blocks, 27.7 PER

    There's been tons of fantastic play from centers during the 2014-15 season, but DeMarcus Cousins has stood out in a big way. He's been head and shoulders above every other true 5 in the league thus far, thanks to some mature play as he continues to get better. 

    For the first time in his career, Cousins is making over half his shots from the field, and he's doing so while getting to the free-throw line at a ridiculous rate. On top of that, he's leading the league in both rebounds per game and total rebounding percentage while trailing only Anthony Davis in PER among featured players (in other words, excluding Brandan Wright). 

    Plus, he's bought in to Mike Malone's system, which involves making a concerted effort on the defensive end of the court. 

    Cousins boasts a superior blend of strength, size and finesse, and now he's added motivation into the mix. He's playing with more focus and intensity than ever before, and the result has been a nearly unstoppable force at center for the resurgent Kings.