Ranking the Top 25 Players in the NBA Right Now

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 4, 2014

Ranking the Top 25 Players in the NBA Right Now

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    With the exception of a few players who have either suffered significant injuries or only just returned from them, most standouts in the NBA have played enough games that we can actually start drawing some meaningful conclusions about how they stack up. 

    And based on the early returns, there are a lot of them. 

    Already, the 2014-15 season has produced plenty of breakout stars, with Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson chief among them. It's seen a few big names decline. For example, some of the San Antonio Spurs legends aren't producing to quite the same extent as they have in the past. There have even been shakeups at the top of the player hierarchy, though I won't spoil whether LeBron James apparently losing a step has knocked him out of the pole position. 

    We aren't looking at potential, and past accomplishments really don't matter. Even the 2014 NBA Finals don't come into play here, as we're looking primarily at the opening portion of this current campaign and also factoring in how sustainable that production is. Some players will naturally trend up, while others will regress to more typical levels as the season progresses. 

    It all matters. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current going into Dec. 5's action. 

Honorable Mentions

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    This early in the year, there are plenty of notable performances but only a finite number of featured spots. Twenty-five of them, in fact. 

    So gear up for a whole bunch of honorable mentions. 

    Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: Now that the league's leading scorer has started passing the ball more, the Lakers have begun to find a bit more success, which should motivate this particular 2-guard to play with a more advantageous style throughout the year. 

    Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks: With his game-winning heroics, an offensive game that is now adhering to his strengths and plenty of confidence, Monta Ellis truly does have it all at this early stage of the NBA season. 

    Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls: The adjustment has been rather smooth, as Pau Gasol—showing off creativity on offense and defensive skills that previously remained dormant—has been even better with the Chicago Bulls than he was during his final year with the Lakers as a supposedly washed-up big man. 

    Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings: Now that he's eschewing perimeter jumpers and sticking to his bread and butter, Rudy Gay has been a fantastically valuable piece for the surprisingly competitive Sacramento Kings, justifying his gaudy salary all the while.

    Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz: Surrounded by more offensive talent than he was during his first go-round as an alpha dog, Gordon Hayward is thriving in the role and putting up high-volume and solidly efficient numbers as a scorer for the Utah Jazz.

    Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers: Still one of the best rim-protecting centers in the league, Roy Hibbert has asserted himself as an early Defensive Player of the Year threat and done so while rebounding with more ferocity and playing with a bit more skill on the offensive end.

    Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets: Ty Lawson has spearheaded the Denver Nuggets' early turnaround, thanks primarily to his unrelenting aggressiveness off the bounce; for the very same reason, he's also become one of the league's premier assist maestros.

    Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs: The future of the San Antonio Spurs is still filling a more restrained role, but he's looked good while doing it, simultaneously showcasing his versatile offensive talent and his prowess on the less glamorous end of the floor.

    Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks: Let's just say that last year's All-Star selection wasn't a fluke, as Paul Millsap is validating his spot in the midseason festivities with his stretchiness, all-around contributions and surprisingly quick hands in the passing lanes. 

    Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls: Frustrating injuries that just won't go away have limited Joakim Noah all year, but he's still been a remarkably good defender and a virtuoso with the ball in his hands. 

    Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs: The French point guard remains the head of the snake for the defending champions, and while he's taking more of a backseat than he has in years, the talent is still there. 

    Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic: One of the season's biggest breakout stars (figuratively and literally), Nikola Vucevic has made strides on the defensive end and looks more capable than ever when asked to serve as one of the Orlando Magic's primary offensive options. 

25. Rajon Rondo

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    Team: Boston Celtics

    Position: PG

    Age: 28

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 8.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 10.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 14.8 PER

    Though Rajon Rondo's scoring numbers haven't been worse since his rookie season with the Celtics, and he's turning the ball over quite frequently, it's impossible to overlook just how much he brings to the table when playing at full strength. 

    Not only is Rondo the league's premier triple-double threat, thanks primarily to his love of the big stage and his frontcourt-esque rebounding skills, but he's pacing the NBA in assists per game and playing superb defense for the C's. The 28-year-old is capable of crazy distributing feats like recording 14 assists in the first half of a game against the Atlanta Hawks, and he's single-handedly able to get a lackluster Boston offense humming on some nights. 

    Rondo's flaws have been especially glaring this year, which, despite his typical placement in the top 15 when healthy, prevents him from assuming a higher spot in the rankings. But even a flawed Rondo is a dominant two-way floor general.

24. Dwyane Wade

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Position: SG

    Age: 32

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.5 blocks, 24.7 PER 

    The biggest concern with Dwyane Wade—who has looked like the league's second-best shooting guard when he's healthy and on the floor—simply involves staying on the court. It took him seven games to regain full strength after his strained hamstring knocked him out of action for the Miami Heat, though it's worth noting he dominated upon his return. 

    In his first three post-injury outings, Wade averaged 25.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game while shooting 60.8 percent from the field. It's safe to say he wasn't showing many ill effects after the prolonged time off. 

    But how much can we count on Wade going forward?

    There's been an underlying assumption he'll be operating under a maintenance plan throughout the year, and this hamstring issue was unrelated to the balky knees that seem as though they'll inevitably give him trouble. Until he keeps a clean bill of health for far longer, question marks abound. 

23. Chris Bosh

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Position: C

    Age: 30

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks, 22.9 PER

    Though Chris Bosh has connected from beyond the arc with frequency and spent a lot of time at the charity stripe, he's still struggled with his shot during this season as the Miami Heat alpha dog. His 57.4 true shooting percentage is now his worst mark since the 2011-12 season, when he was still adjusting to a new role as the tertiary option who would stretch out the floor. 

    Fortunately, there are signs that he's trending in the right direction and getting over an early-season mini-slump. During Bosh's last seven games, he's averaged 24.9 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest while shooting 54.5 percent from the field, 53.6 percent from beyond the arc and 77.1 percent at the stripe.

    Obviously, those are great offensive numbers, and Bosh is still coupling them with some respectable work on the defensive end. Should he keep them up—which could be quite difficult, because that three-point percentage is in no way sustainable—he'll only move back up the rankings. 

22. Klay Thompson

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: SG

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks, 20.5 PER

    Klay Thompson just keeps rolling along for the red-hot Golden State Warriors. 

    At this point, it seems safe to assume that we're seeing legitimate improvement from the 24-year-old 2-guard, not just the results of an early-season fluke. Thompson is a true All-Star candidate, a threat to win Most Improved Player and—most importantly—a crucial cog on both ends of the floor for a squad that could very well compete for the top spot in the Western Conference all year long. 

    Why? Because he's creating shots for himself (only 54.1 percent of his two-point makes have required assists and just 86.0 percent of his triples), distributing the rock to his teammates and continuing to make a big impact both offensively and defensively. 

    Thus far, the Warriors are scoring an additional 18.7 points per 100 possessions when Thompson is on the floor, and they're simultaneously allowing 17.3 fewer. That's a nearly unheard-of margin, and while there are other confounding variables at play (sample size, teammates, etc.), it's one that this breakout star has truly earned. 

21. Jimmy Butler

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    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Position: SG

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 21.5 PER

    The Eastern Conference Player of the Month for November (and the brief portion of October that gets subsumed by this award), Jimmy Butler has been the biggest breakout star of the year, absolutely thriving in a featured role for the Chicago Bulls throughout the early portion of the 2014-15 season. It's time to elevate him up into the realm of the big names, as we're doing here. 

    After all, Sean Deveney of SportingNews.com recently detailed how Butler's bet on himself this summer is likely to pay off next offseason in the form of a max contract: 

    If Butler continues on this current track, several league executives agree he will warrant a max-contract offer next summer. That's based not only on Butler's numbers, but his top-tier defensive ability, his age (25) and the fact that nearly half the league will have significant cap space available.

    'If you think you have a legitimate shot at him, you would have to come out with a max offer,' one general manager said. 'That's the only way you'd have a chance of prying him out of Chicago, and there are a few teams that would be willing to try, sort of like what Charlotte tried with [Gordon] Hayward last summer. I think he stays in Chicago, but it is going to be expensive for them.'

    If he keeps playing like this, it won't matter how expensive Butler gets. He'll be worth it. 

20. Tim Duncan

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 38

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.1 blocks, 21.4 PER

    The robot known to us humans as Tim Duncan just continues to produce. Even though his offensive impact has declined for the San Antonio Spurs during the early potion of the 2014-15 campaign, he's making up for the loss by dominating on the boards and playing some of the best defense of his illustrious career. 

    And this is a guy who has been named to the All-Defensive squad 14 times, so that's not exactly some shabby achievement. 

    Duncan's 5.1 defensive box plus/minus, which approximates how many fewer points per 100 possessions the Spurs allow with him rather than a league-average player, is better than any mark he's ever produced. His previous career high came back in 2006-07, when he posted a 4.6 DBPM. He already has 1.3 defensive win shares, which puts him on pace to earn 5.9 this season, and that would be one of the better results of his career despite a reduction in playing time. 

    There's more. 

    San Antonio's defensive rating drops 5.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court, and the resulting number of 96.7 would be the No. 1 mark in the league with some room to spare. Plus, 82games.com shows that Duncan is holding opposing power forwards and centers to respective player efficiency ratings of 13.4 and 17.1. 

    No matter how you look at it, he's been dominant on that end. 

19. Kevin Love

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    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Position: PF

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, 18.6 PER

    Here comes the Kevin Love we're used to seeing, even if his defensive woes are ultimately problematic on a Cleveland Cavaliers roster utterly devoid of rim-protecting presences. Love was fairly atrocious at the start of the year, finding more iron than twine when he let fly from the perimeter and looking quite uncomfortable on both ends of the floor. 

    But that seems to be in the past now. 

    The 26-year-old power forward has adjusted rather nicely, and that's coincided with a run of resiliency from the surging—but still up-and-down—Cavs. In his past six games, he's averaged 20.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, but he's also shot a scorching 55.8 percent from the field and connected on 41.2 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. Those are the types of numbers Cleveland would love to see from him while Kyrie Irving and LeBron James draw so much defensive attention away from Love and allow him to shoot with more space than he ever enjoyed in Minnesota. 

    Now, can he keep it up?

18. Dirk Nowitzki

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    Team: Dallas Mavericks

    Position: PF

    Age: 36

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, 23.3 PER

    Dirk Nowitzki hasn't done much on the glass, and he's a negative contributor on the defensive end. But all the while, he's been torching opponents from all areas of the court, drilling contested jumpers with one leg extended and wreaking havoc whenever the defense makes the fatal mistake of leaving him with even the tiniest bit of breathing room.

    His shooting is so deadly that it affects everything. What's commonly being referred to now as his "gravity" is ridiculously strong, if for no other reason than defenses being completely unable to help off him without paying for doing so. 

    Through the first 18 games of his age-36 season, Nowitzki is connecting on 48.5 percent of his shots from the field, 36.9 percent of his looks from beyond the arc and 86.4 percent of his tries at the free-throw line. Those numbers are actually down from where he started the season, but they're still undeniably impressive. 

    When Nowitzki has been on the bench in 2014-15, the Dallas Mavericks have still scored 112.0 points per 100 possessions, which would be the No. 4 mark in the Association. But when he plays, the offensive rating skyrockets to 118.6, leaving every other team in the dust. 

17. Kyrie Irving

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    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Position: PG

    Age: 22

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 23.3 PER

    This is the Kyrie Irving we were supposed to see when he came out of Duke as such a promising prospect. 

    Though he's still struggling on defense—though not quite to the same extent that he has in the past—he's playing the most efficient offensive basketball of his career. Frankly, it's not even close. Take a look at how he fares in a few advanced metrics from the last few years and this one: 

    YearTS%AST%TOV%FT RateWS/48
    2011-1256.636.516.10.2620.125
    2012-1355.332.713.80.2710.125
    2013-1453.331.612.10.2730.128
    2014-1562.121.88.90.4080.230

    Though he's not recording as many assists, he's making up for that with his scoring on a team that doesn't necessarily need traditional production from its point guard. LeBron James more than compensates for the distributing decline, after all. 

    Irving has shot the ball with incredible efficiency, he's rarely coughed it up to the opposition and he's played with unrelenting aggression, which has allowed him to rack up easy points at the charity stripe. Basically, he's maximizing his talents for the first time in his young career. 

16. Carmelo Anthony

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    Team: New York Knicks

    Position: SF/PF

    Age: 30

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 20.5 PER

    The New York Knicks' use of Carmelo Anthony has been rather frustrating. 

    In 2012-13, 72 percent of his minutes came at power forward. In 2013-14, 62 percent. Those two seasons happened to be the best individual years of his career thus far, as he could post up closer to the basket and take advantage of one mismatch after another, banging around when he needed to and stretching the floor at all times. It also forced him to commit on the glass, which he absolutely excelled at last year. 

    But Derek Fisher has stubbornly insisted on keeping him at the 3 in 2014-15, and only 31 percent of his minutes have come with him listed as a power forward. It's just not enough, and it's forced Anthony into a role that doesn't quite make the most of his ability. 

    Is he still a dominant offensive contributor? Sure, but he could be so much more, and it's hard to fault him for the regression from last season's exploits. 

15. Blake Griffin

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PF

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.7 PER

    Blake Griffin hasn't yet played at the level he proved he was capable of reaching in 2013-14, but he's rebounded nicely from a tough start to the season. During the Los Angeles Clippers' six-game winning streak, he's averaged 23.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, and he's done so while hitting 52.8 percent of his field-goal attempts and an astounding 85.7 percent of his looks at the line. 

    All of a sudden, he's turned into a shooting machine. 

    Not only is Griffin poised to set career marks at the charity stripe, but he's also taking mid-range jumpers with far more frequency than ever before. The percentage of shots he's taken from between 16 feet and the three-point arc has risen each year of his career, and now it's jumped from 26.7 percent to 37.1. And he's also gotten more efficient from the zone, drilling a career-best 40.5 percent of his attempts. 

    Griffin's game keeps expanding, even if it looks as though his level of production is down. Once he regresses to the mean in a few areas—right around the rim, for example—he'll keep proving that his value is only rising. 

14. John Wall

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    Team: Washington Wizards

    Position: PG

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 9.6 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.5 blocks, 20.2 PER

    As J. Michael explains with some statistics for CSN Washington, John Wall has become the ultimate team player for the Washington Wizards: "Wall is third in total touches in the NBA at 1,510 and fourth in per-game average (94.4). He's top 5 in every passing category from total assists (149), secondary assists (2.0 per game), passes (69 per), points created by assists (21.9 per), etc."

    It's a sentiment that Wall himself will back up: 

    I'm not a one-on-one guy. I've never had the ball thrown at me since my rookie year and (have someone) say, 'Hey, go win the game for us.' I win games by playing it the team way. Getting open shots, moving the ball, getting hockey assists. That's how I win basketball games. ... Some people look at it by numbers. I look at it by filling the stat sheet and coming out with the W.

    The Wizards are doing a lot of winning, and it's largely because of their point guard, especially as he cements his reputation as a two-way force.

    Wall's defense has been quite key for the Wizards throughout the 2014-15 season, allowing for the interior of the unit to face much less pressure. Whether he's on or off the ball, he's capable of making a huge impact.  

13. Damian Lillard

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    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Position: PG

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, 22.8 PER

    At what point do we start putting Damian Lillard up in that category of sharp-shooting point guards that's occupied by Stephen Curry and no one else?

    How about now?

    See if you can guess which player is which: 

    • Player A: 40.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc on 6.5 attempts per game
    • Player B: 41.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc on 7.6 attempts per game

    Player A is a bit inferior, and that would be Lillard.

    But still, they're at least comparable players from downtown, especially because Lillard is similarly adept—though again, not quite on the same level—at creating shots off the bounce. He and Curry are, after all, the only two players in the league hitting at least 40.5 percent of their tries and taking 6.5 deep looks per contest. 

    Throw in a bit of everything else and some slowly improving defense, and you have an elite point guard, even at just 24 years of age.  

12. Dwight Howard

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: C

    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

    Per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, Dwight Howard is probably out through the weekend as he continues to recover from the strained right knee he suffered quite some time ago. It's limited him to only 10 games played in the 2014-15 campaign, but even in those 10, Howard has left no doubt that he remains one of the league's elite centers. 

    Not only is he an ever-efficient source of scoring—so long as he's not at the charity stripe—but he's still a dominant rebounder with a knack for defense. Prior to the knee injury, Howard looked healthy and fresh for the first time in years, and he seemed to turn back the clocks with some active pick-and-roll defense and work protecting the rim. 

    Now we get to see if that lasts when he comes back from this prolonged stretch of time spent in suits rather than uniforms. The 28-year-old should have plenty left in the tank, but when it comes to big men and health concerns, especially when a balky back has caused so many issues in seasons past, nothing can be taken for granted. 

11. LaMarcus Aldridge

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    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Position: PF

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.3 blocks, 22.5 PER

    LaMarcus Aldridge just keeps getting better at scoring. 

    Last season, one in which he was still absolutely dominant, he hit 44.2 percent of his looks from between 16 feet and the three-point arc, and that range comprised 41.5 percent of his total shots from the field. From outside the arc, he went 3-of-15 shooting throughout the entire campaign. 

    But in 2014-15, Aldridge is becoming an even more deadly jump-shooter while expanding his range, which is a positive change for a man who relies on one of the court's most inefficient zones for so much of his offense. 

    From that deep mid-range area, Aldridge is hitting 44.8 percent of his attempts, and that's making up 41.4 percent of his total in-flow offense. So it's not as though he's just trading off volume for efficiency; he's just gotten better.

    Plus, he's already knocked down 10 triples in only 19 attempts. While he went four games without attempting even a single shot from downtown before his 2-of-2 performance against the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 4, it's clearly a newfound facet of his offensive arsenal. 

10. Kyle Lowry

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    Team: Toronto Raptors

    Position: PG

    Age: 28

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 20.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks, 24.7 PER

    Kyle Lowry deserves the lion's share of the credit for the Toronto Raptors' success during the early portion of this 2014-15 season. He's been a force on offense and a tenacious defender who's always willing to put his body in harm's way, setting a tone for all of his teammates. 

    Only Chris Paul has earned more offensive win shares than Lowry's 2.8. When defensive win shares are brought into the equation, Lowry's total trails just those produced by Paul, Anthony Davis, James Harden and Stephen Curry, all of whom have yet to show up in this countdown. He's also tied for sixth in win shares per 48 minutes, No. 6 in box plus/minus, No. 3 in offensive box plus/minus and No. 6 in value over replacement player (VORP), which shows how many more points per 100 possessions he contributes than a replacement-level player would in his shoes. 

    No matter how you look at it, he's been ultra-valuable to the Toronto cause, a main part of the reason the Raptors have the top record in the Eastern Conference. 

    Lowry will probably slow down—if only slightly—as the season progresses, but he's been a legitimate All-Star during the early portion of the year...and then some. 

9. Russell Westbrook

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: PG

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 35.3 PER

    It's tough to judge Russell Westbrook, as he's only been able to play in four games thus far. But during that not-even-a-handful of outings, he's been absolutely unstoppable. The dynamic point guard has posted a jaw-dropping 35.3 PER and put up the numbers you can see above while shooting 45.5 percent from both the field and beyond the arc, as well as 87.5 percent at the line. 

    But here's the most impressive stat of all. 

    The Oklahoma City Thunder have played in 18 games—again, only four of which Westbrook has participated in. Nonetheless, he's already tied with Steven Adams for the fifth-most win shares on the team (0.6), trailing only Reggie Jackson (1.4), Serge Ibaka (1.1), Jeremy Lamb (1.1) and Anthony Morrow (0.8). With 0.299 win shares per 48 minutes, his season—assuming he can keep up this torrid pace, which he most likely can't—would resonate on a historical level, finishing in the top dozen throughout all the NBA annals. 

    Westbrook is the clear beneficiary of small sample size, but he's already left quite the reminder of just how talented he is when operating at 100 percent. 

8. Kevin Durant

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: SF

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 22.4 PER

    Figuring out Kevin Durant is even tougher. 

    After all, the league's reigning MVP (and probably its No. 2 player when samples are much larger and we're sure he's fully healthy) has only played in a single game. During those 30 minutes against the New Orleans Pelicans, he went 9-of-18 from the floor, 3-of-8 beyond the arc and 6-of-7 at the stripe en route to 27 points, three rebounds and two assists, although he did turn the ball over five times. The OKC offense also struggled to incorporate him, especially since he was more of a shot-maker than an all-around player. 

    Still, there's no denying just how much talent Durant has, and only two things are forcing him to settle in at No. 8 for the time being. 

    The players who have yet to appear are all sustainable MVP candidates (it's that adjective that pushes Kyle Lowry just below the Thunder stars). Plus, Durant still has to regain his sea legs, which could take quite some time, especially because Jones fractures are notoriously difficult injuries to recover from in expedited fashion.  

7. James Harden

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: SG

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.1 blocks, 25.3 PER

    James Harden's ridiculous levels of efficiency have fallen back to more normal territory, but he's still been a huge asset for the Houston Rockets, especially with Dwight Howard already injured for so much time.

    During the eight games that the big man has missed, Harden has been faced with more defensive pressure, and he's responded by averaging 24.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.3 blocks per contest. He's also shot 44.9 percent from the field, connected on 41.2 percent of his triples and hit his free throws at an 88.2 percent clip. 

    That's ridiculous.

    Even if Harden isn't getting to the charity stripe at a record-setting pace any longer, he's still hitting more of his shots in the course of play and providing Houston with some two-way play. Yes, two-way. That is not a typo. 

    Harden actually has a 2.3 DBPM, and the team has allowed 1.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. But if you're not about the numbers, it's still not hard for you to change your perception about the bearded shooting guard's defensive effort level, because it's definitely much higher this year. 

    All you have to do is watch him play. Then it's already going to be obvious enough. 

6. Marc Gasol

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    Team: Memphis Grizzlies

    Position: C

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.5 blocks, 22.9 PER

    Tony Allen may be the emotional heart and soul of the Memphis Grizzlies, but it's Marc Gasol who makes everything work. And it's worked pretty well, seeing as the Grizz have stormed out to a 15-3 mark that leaves them in the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference. 

    On offense, Gasol has been contributing more as a scorer, and he's actually doing so while shooting more efficiently than he has since becoming a featured part of the offense in 2011-12. He remains a creative distributor capable of serving as an offensive hub, and his tricky passes and behind-the-back feeds to cutting teammates are beautiful sights. 

    Defensively, Gasol is a mastermind, with near-perfect understanding of positioning, spacing and rotations. He might not record many glamorous box-score statistics, but he always seems to be making the right play. Throw in some improved rebounding chops, and he's an even more well-rounded center than he's ever been. 

    And that's scary for the rest of the West. 

5. DeMarcus Cousins

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    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Position: C

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.5 blocks, 27.8 PER

    ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton didn't hold back when writing about DeMarcus Cousins' improvement at the beginning of December (subscription required): 

    Cousins posted All-Star numbers last season, ranking 13th in wins above replacement player (WARP), but he couldn't crack the loaded Western Conference team. Now, Cousins is going to be impossible to keep out of the game. While his statistics haven't improved dramatically -- he's scoring a bit more efficiently, and his rebound rate is a tad better -- Cousins has become the NBA's most unstoppable interior force since Shaquille O'Neal.

    Perhaps more importantly, Cousins seems to have 'gotten it' on the defensive end. The Kings' improvement from 23rd to 18th in defensive rating understates Cousins' leap. Per NBA.com/Stats, Sacramento is allowing just 98.3 points per 100 possessions with Cousins on the floor -- which ties him for fourth in the league -- as compared to 113.0 with him on the bench. That's enough to make Cousins one of the league's most valuable players.

    The defensive improvement has been huge for the Sacramento Kings, but let's focus on that Shaquille O'Neal claim. It seems hyperbolic, right? 

    But given Cousins' unfair combination of speed, power and finesse, one that makes him a matchup nightmare for virtually any defender, he'll prove it isn't as soon as he returns from the viral infection that's currently keeping him out of action. 

4. LeBron James

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Position: SF/PF

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks, 23.9 PER

    "It's important to keep his larger-than-life standards in mind," Zach Buckley recently opined for Bleacher Report, referring, of course, to LeBron James. "Most players can only dream of a stat line like his: 24.9 points, 7.4 assists and 5.8 rebounds. For the record, two players have had a 24-point, seven-assist and five-rebound season in any of the last 10 years: James (this would be his sixth) and former teammate Dwyane Wade (once)."

    James has been a step slow, which is a big deal for anyone in the NBA, even a four-time MVP. He's been uninvolved at times on defense, and his trademark efficiency has slipped as he adjusts to his new digs. It appears as though he's lost a bit of burst, and the adjustment process with the Cleveland Cavaliers has taken some time. 

    But this is still LeBron James we're talking about. 

    Chances are, he'll reclaim his throne before the season ends, proving once more that he remains the best player in the world. But we're concerned with right now, and James, while still dominant, hasn't been one of the league's three best players. He's just been the fourth best. 

    Not even he is immune to a slight—if only temporary—fall from grace. 

3. Stephen Curry

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    Allen Einstein/Getty Images

    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: PG

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 28.1 PER

    Let's go ahead and ignore Stephen Curry's three-point shooting, even though it's been historically impressive and leaves him within striking distance of his own single-season record. Well, we can still remember the self-created game-winner against the Orlando Magic. And his eight magical threes against the Miami Heat. 

    Maybe ignoring his sniping is easier said than done. 

    But, just as always, Curry has been more than a shooter. He's distributing the ball to his teammates quite nicely night in and night out, and he's fully committing to the defensive end under Steve Kerr. Whether he's staying on his mark or pushing his man over into a double-team or trapping situations, he's making all the right decisions. 

    Thanks to the first positive DBPM of his career, Curry is now leading the league in box plus/minus and VORP, indicating that he's adding quite a bit of value to the Golden State Warriors' cause. 

2. Chris Paul

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PG

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 9.5 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 27.7 PER

    What Chris Paul is doing this season is unfathomable. 

    He's shooting 53.3 percent from the field, 42.6 percent from beyond the arc and 87.7 percent from the charity stripe, which means he's only 0.9 percentage points in the last category from setting career highs in all three. And that's not even the most impressive aspect of his mind-boggling efficiency. 

    Paul has turned the ball over only 27 times in his 18 appearances, which averages out to exactly 1.5 per game. That's just hard to wrap the mind around, given that he almost always operates with the rock, functions as a premier scoring threat and nearly leads the league in assists. 

    Let's put it in perspective. 

    This season, 158 qualified players have averaged 1.5 turnovers per game or fewer. Of those, only two are averaging more than five assists per game: Kemba Walker (5.6) and CP3 (9.5). Again, that's just hard to wrap the mind around. 

    Let's put it in more perspective. 

    Muggsy Bogues has the all-time assist record for players who averaged no more than 1.5 turnovers per game throughout a season. During his 1990-91 season with the Charlotte Hornets, he dished out 8.3 dimes per contest. 

    Once more, Paul is at 9.5.

1. Anthony Davis

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 21

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.3 steals, 3.1 blocks, 33.7 PER

    Anthony Davis has been the best player in the league. Frankly, it hasn't even been close. 

    Only Kobe Bryant is scoring more points per game. Just five players are averaging more rebounds per contest than the unibrowed big man. Paul Millsap, interestingly enough, is the lone player who's stealing the ball more frequently, and no one comes particularly close to Davis in the rejection category. 

    He's doing everything, and he's doing so in effortless fashion. Even when the New Orleans Pelicans need him to dominate a game by hitting one contested mid-range jumper after another, he's been up to the challenge with nary a complaint. 

    That 33.7 PER would be the best in NBA history if he maintained it throughout the season, and it appears quite possible. After all, Davis has shown no signs of regressing, and the 21-year-old actually seems to be getting better whenever he steps onto the floor.

    This may not be the season Davis wins his first MVP. He may not even make the playoffs, given the ridiculous strength of the Western Conference.

    But he's already put himself firmly in the middle of the best-player-in-the-world conversation, one it appears he'll be flat-out dominating a few years down the road. If not sooner.