NBA Superstar Rankings: Russell Westbrook Quickly Rising Up the Ranks

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 31, 2014

NBA Superstar Rankings: Russell Westbrook Quickly Rising Up the Ranks

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    It's getting crowded at the top. 

    Over the last few years, LeBron James and Kevin Durant have quite clearly been the best players in the NBA. Standouts such as Paul George and Chris Paul have mounted challenges, some of which were longer lived than others, but those two have been the established cream of the crop. 

    Not anymore, though that could easily change during the rest of the 2014-15 campaign. 

    Durant has played in only a handful of games thus far, as he's been forced to deal with a Jones fracture and a sprained ankle. Meanwhile, James has struggled (relatively) to maintain the level of dominance he reached with the Miami Heat.

    It's time for some fresh blood at the top of the Association's totem pole, and there are plenty of candidates. 

    But will it be James Harden and his beard rising all the way up? Is Anthony Davis maintaining his early-season pace? Is it time to recognize a different point guard, such as Russell Westbrook or Stephen Curry, as the class of the league?

    Even though the last edition of these superstar rankings featured some new faces, there's more uncertainty at the top than there's been in quite some time.

Injured Players

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    Before delving into the rankings themselves, it's worth noting that injured players are not considered for any of the featured spots, and they will not be listed as honorable mentions.

    If a player is expected to be out of action for a prolonged period or is set to return but has missed too much time in the last few weeks, he's automatically ineligible for the remainder of this slideshow. 

    As a result, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan and Paul George will not be appearing, although they would make the cut—or at least come close—if the injury imp didn't dictate otherwise.

Honorable Mentions

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    John Wall

    The Washington Wizards floor general certainly deserves credit, even if there are only 10 spots to hand out. He's a dominant two-way force, capable of setting the tone on defense and providing a huge offensive boost with his incredible passing and knack for scoring in his whirling-dervish manner.

    Blake Griffin

    Though he's still a bit too reliant on his mid-range jumper and hasn't been attacking the basket as much as he should, Blake Griffin continues to remain hugely effective. His passing has been particularly impressive, as he's averaging a career-best 4.8 assists per game.

    Klay Thompson

    Klay Thompson plays great wing defense and can score from everywhere. But he's still a bit too limited to work his way into the top 10, even though he seemed bound for that kind of recognition at the beginning of the year. If he rebounds and distributes the ball more effectively, perhaps that will change.

    Carmelo Anthony

    Though Carmelo Anthony certainly can't be blamed for the struggles of the New York Knicks, who have been the worst iteration of this squad in the franchise's lengthy history, it doesn't help that he's been sitting out occasionally with his recurring knee injury. Even if he'd been on the court during each and every game, though, he'd only be on the tail end of the top 10. 

    Dwight Howard

    The Houston Rockets' big man has continued to look like a dominant force when healthy, though it's worth wondering just how valuable he's been to the Houston Rockets. After all, they fared just fine while he was out of the lineup, despite what his on/off numbers indicate.

    Superstar-Less Teams with Dominant Records

    Though there's been no clear-cut superstar on the Memphis Grizzlies night in and night out, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley both deserved strong consideration for one of the featured spots. Zach Randolph is essentially an honorable mention for the honorable mentions. 

    Ditto for the Portland Trail Blazers. Both Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are unquestionable top-10 threats, but they're neck-and-neck for the title of best player on their own team, and both would reasonably rank in the teens.

    Then we have the Chicago Bulls. Jimmy Butler is playing like an obvious All-Star and seems like a huge omission, left out solely due to the limited number of featured spots. Pau Gasol has been resurgent and deserves credit as one of the NBA's best bigs. Derrick Rose is trending in the right direction as well. 

    Finally, we have the Atlanta Hawks, who have no idea who their best player will be on any given night. You could make serious cases for Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Kyle Korver all sneaking onto the All-Star team in the Eastern Conference, though there's a solid chance none of them ultimately make it.

10. Dwyane Wade (Previous Ranking: Unranked)

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Position: SG

    Age: 32

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.5 blocks, 24.9 PER

    Dwyane Wade has set about to remind everyone of what he can do when healthy. 

    Since sitting out and allowing his balky hamstring to regain full functionality, the 32-year-old 2-guard has suited up in 16 games. During that stretch, he's averaged a scorching 25.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, while shooting 51.3 percent from the field. In his last seven outings, he's been even better: 28.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.6 dimes per contest on a 50.3 percent clip from the field. 

    Gone is the Wade who can split a pair of defenders, slash to the basket and finish with a thunderous jam. But he's hitting looks from the outside and picking his spots with the wisdom of a longtime veteran, and it's paid off for the struggling Heat. 

    Of course, one of his best performances came against his old teammate and current friend. When LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers came to South Beach on Christmas Day, Wade dropped a cool 31 in the upset victory. 

    The old man still has it, which has become a bit of good news during a depressing season for the Heat.

9. Tim Duncan (Previous Ranking: Unranked)

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 38

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 15.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.1 blocks, 22.3 PER

    Have you ever wondered what Tim Duncan does during his off days? In order to find out, just track down good ol' Father Time. Chances are, Duncan will be hanging out with him and playing bingo, buddying up so that the ill effects of old age don't plague him during the final stage of his NBA career. 

    So far, it's working. 

    Not only is Duncan consistently scoring, rebounding and distributing for the San Antonio Spurs, but he's also playing some of the best defense of his professional tenure. Even looking past the glamorous stats—1.0 steals and 2.1 blocks per game—he's making a huge impact.

    In fact, the Spurs' defensive rating has dropped 4.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court, and his defensive box plus/minus (which shows the impact he's had relative to an average player) is likewise a league-best 4.2.

    "A third of the way through his 18th NBA season, Duncan has been the league's most impressive defensive force," Marc Stein writes for ESPN.com while arguing that Duncan has been the Defensive Player of the Year through the first trimester.

    "Despite the frequent injury absences of key defenders Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio ranks No. 6 in the league in defensive efficiency, thanks largely to Duncan's work as the Spurs' anchor." 

    How insane would it be for a player to win his first DPOY at 38? Since we're talking about Duncan, it really wouldn't be crazy at all.

8. DeMarcus Cousins (Previous Ranking: Unranked/Injured)

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    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Position: C

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.6 blocks, 28.6 PER

    The only thing holding DeMarcus Cousins back is his illness. 

    While dealing with the viral meningitis that kept him out of the lineup for 10 games, he had to watch as the Sacramento Kings went 2-8, knocking themselves firmly out of the postseason race and leading to the firing of head coach Mike Malone. Then he came back and just picked up where he left off. 

    Since returning to the lineup, the league's best big man has averaged 28.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.6 blocks per game, while shooting 55.1 percent from the field. He's showing off that unfair combination of physicality and finesse, and even his passing seems drastically improved. 

    Oh, and how about his defense? 

    Cousins appears to be making smarter rotations and challenging more shots around the rim. He's more engaged on the less glamorous end of the floor, and it's had a positive impact on the Kings as a whole, who have allowed 12.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's been in the game.

    Had the 24-year-old center stayed healthy and played like this during the 10 games he missed, there's a good chance his name would be tossed about in the MVP race.

7. Kyle Lowry (Previous Ranking: No. 6)

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    Team: Toronto Raptors

    Position: PG

    Age: 28

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 20.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, 24.4 PER

    Kyle Lowry just keeps rolling through the competition, playing great two-way basketball while keeping the Toronto Raptors atop the Eastern Conference. Even without DeMar DeRozan, the Canadian franchise is thriving, thanks primarily to the work done by this impressive point guard. 

    That said, he could use a bit more help, as he's starting to show a few signs of slowing down. Though his numbers have remained steady overall, he's needed to stand out in a big way recently to make up for a lackluster stretch in early December. It's understandable, as the burden he's taken on has been absolutely ridiculous. 

    And, scarily enough, it gets even heavier down the stretch of tight games.

    In clutch situations—defined by NBA.com as the last five minutes of contests with no more than a five-point gap between the team—Lowry has had a usage rate of 40.8.

    Not only is that far higher than his typical 26.8 usage rate, but it's also lower than only those produced by Kobe Bryant (49.6), James Harden (44.8) and Carmelo Anthony (41.6).  

    If you didn't think of Lowry as a star before this season, it's time to change your view.

6. Chris Paul (Previous Ranking: No. 5)

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PG

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 9.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 25.1 PER

    Does Chris Paul make mistakes?

    Not only does the Los Angeles Clippers floor general shoot with remarkable efficiency—48.1 percent from the field, 40.2 percent from downtown and 87.5 percent at the stripe—but he's even better at maintaining control of the rock. Paul directs the flow for LAC and sets the pace for the game, and somehow he just never coughs it up to the opposition. 

    The 29-year-old floor general is only committing 2.1 turnovers per game, which would tie the lowest mark of his incredible career. His turnover percentage of 11.8 would be the No. 2 score of his professional tenure, trailing only the 10.8 percent of his first season with the Clippers. 

    There was a two-game stretch in the middle of December in which he turned the ball over 12 times combined, but everyone is due for some mistakes now and then. Throughout the rest of the season, a trio of four-turnover contests are his next-worst outings. And that's more than cancelled out by the four games in which he kept a clean sheet in that category. 

    Paul seems to be getting even smarter as he works toward his 30th birthday, and that's scary for the rest of the league.

5. LeBron James (Previous Ranking: No. 3)

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    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Position: SF/PF

    Age: 30

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, 24.9 PER

    No one knows exactly how LeBron James will play now that he's in his 30s. But based on the body of work he put together at 29 years old, it'll probably still be pretty fantastic. 

    James hasn't been his MVP-winning self during the 2014-15 season, adjusting to playing with new star teammates and under the supervision of a first-year head coach now that he's returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, even a slightly less effective version of James has been pretty darn good. 

    It would be nice if he committed more on the defensive end of the floor, stopped racking up so many turnovers and reached the peak levels of shooting efficiency he somehow found during the end of his time in South Beach. Yet even now that he's passing the ball at the end of drives rather than showing a disregard for human life and fingers around the rim, he's remained quite impressive.

    "It wasn't the shoulder or the elbow, it was the words that he said that got me going," James said after he torched Tobias Harris and the Orlando Magic down the stretch of a recent 98-89 victory, per Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes. "I was actually in chill mode tonight, but chill mode was deactivated after that." 

    The four-time MVP clarified that he was still giving it his all before taking his game to the next level in the fourth quarter, but the point still stands: James hasn't hit the nitrous button all that often this season. Though he's proved he still can in short spurts, that's not enough to finish higher than No. 5, given the stellar play of a quartet of young guns.

4. Russell Westbrook (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: PG

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 28.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.1 blocks, 32.0 PER

    Russell Westbrook is already starting to garner some serious MVP burn, which is rather impressive for an oft-criticized player who has only suited up in 18 of his team's first 32 games. 

    "I mean, I'm not worried about it, man," the dynamic point guard said about his run at the league's premier individual award, via The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry. "I don't know the last time I won an award. I don't worry about any awards."

    Instead, he worries about torching the opposition.

    Case in point, a Christmas outing against the San Antonio Spurs.

    On the national stage and playing without superstar teammate Kevin Durant, Westbrook exploded for 34 points, five rebounds, 11 assists and five steals on 14-of-28 shooting, leading the charge (and then some) during the eight-point victory. He even had 10 points and two dimes during the fourth quarter, which his Oklahoma City Thunder entered trailing by a single point.

    Among his many incredible stats, the most impressive one may well be his player efficiency rating. At 32.0, it's one of the best marks in NBA history. In fact, no qualified player has ever finished a season with a higher number, as Wilt Chamberlain's 31.82 in 1962-63 is the all-time mark.

    Only the lack of playing time is holding him back from one of the top two spots.

3. James Harden (Previous Ranking: No. 4)

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: SG

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 26.4 PER

    James Harden has been quite good on both ends of the court during the 2014-15 season, even earning two defensive win shares thus far, a mark that leaves him behind only Draymond Green and Paul Millsap. But let's not get too carried away quite yet, as the advanced stats can be a bit misleading. Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta elaborates in a must-read piece, concluding with the following:

    Harden's defense this year is actually decent, but it's not great. Opponents are shooting 2.9 percent below their season averages against him. He's averaging two steals and a block per game. He's mentally engaged.

    But he's usually left to guard the weakest perimeter player on the other team. Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley account for the better two.

    Basically, Harden has been a solid defensive asset for the Houston Rockets, even if he hasn't been a true standout. And that's already a huge improvement, one that leaves the bearded shooting guard right near (or at, depending on who you ask) the forefront of the MVP discussion. 

    After all, he's still a ridiculously effective offensive contributor who's flat-out thriving on the glass. In NBA history, only nine players have averaged at least 25 points, six rebounds and six dimes per game—Rick Barry, Larry Bird (four times), Clyde Drexler, Richie Guerin, John Havlicek (twice), LeBron James (10 times), Michael Jordan (three times), Oscar Robertson (nine times) and Jerry West. 

    That's not exactly a bad group to be a part of.

2. Stephen Curry (Previous Ranking: No. 2)

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: PG

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 26.2 PER

    As the sample size has grown larger, Stephen Curry's newfound defensive prowess still hasn't regressed to his 2013-14 level. 

    The 26-year-old point guard has a positive DBPM (1.1) for the first time in his career, he's earned two defensive win shares and the Golden State Warriors are allowing 9.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. Of course, he's still making even more impact on the offensive end. 

    Curry's ability to create points is absolutely remarkable. Whether he's scoring or distributing, he helps the Dubs thrive on the more glamorous end of the floor. Few players are better at navigating through the teeth of the defense, and it's unbelievable how skilled he's become at finishing around the rim. 

    Within three feet of the basket, the floor general has knocked down 57.4 percent of his looks. To put that in perspective, he'd only topped 50 percent twice in his career prior to this season, and the top mark was just 51.4 percent. Even more impressively, he's doing so while taking 20.4 percent of his shots from that range, which would also be a career high. 

    Now, imagine what's going to happen when he regresses to the mean from beyond the arc, as he's currently well below his career average.

1. Anthony Davis (Previous Ranking: No. 1)

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    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 21

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 3.0 blocks, 32.1 PER

    Just think about where the New Orleans Pelicans would be without Anthony Davis. 

    Despite handing major minutes to many lackluster players, getting far less than expected from Ryan Anderson and having both Omer Asik and Eric Gordon suffer significant injuries, the Pelicans are sitting at .500, and they're still alive in the fight for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.

    In the five most used lineups Davis has been a part of, players such as Luke Babbit and Austin Rivers have played prominent roles, which just about says it all.

    Without Davis, the Pelicans are being outscored by 7.1 points per 100 possessions. With him, they're topping the opposition by 3.1 points over the same span. He's already contributed 6.3 win shares for a 16-win squad, even more impressive because players generally need their teams to experience success in order to rack up that particular counting stat. 

    But let's look at this one more way. 

    Based on my FATS projection system (brief explanation here), the Pelicans have played like a 44-win team when Davis is on the floor. But when he sits, New Orleans only projects out as a 24-win squad.

    How's that for impact? To put that in perspective, James Harden's presence increases the Houston Rockets' projection by 13 wins, and Stephen Curry boosts the Golden State Warriors' by 18. 

    If you want to anoint the best player on a great team as the league MVP, that's one thing. But if we're solely looking at value, there's no real reason to rule out a player on a lottery squad. Davis is living testimony to that, as he's turned the Pelicans from a bottom-feeding, 24-win team into a distinct playoff contender. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into Dec. 31's games.

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