Ranking Top 5 NBA Stars at Every Position: Early 2015 Edition

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2015

Ranking Top 5 NBA Stars at Every Position: Early 2015 Edition

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    Remember the days when shooting guard was a weak position, filled by established but declining stars with precious few challengers for the positional throne? Remember when the league had a dearth of high-quality centers, and point guard was really the only spot in the lineup overflowing with talent? 

    So much for that. 

    The NBA's young guns have arrived in plentiful fashion during the 2014-15 season, and many of them are now set to reinforce their newfound standing during the 2015 calendar year. At every position, there's an up-and-coming player at or near the top, and sometimes one isn't enough. 

    It's an exciting time for the NBA, as the league seems to be brimming over with talent more so than ever before. From top to bottom, these five positional rankings are stacked with standouts, to the point that the honorable mentions essentially read like who's who lists.

    With this much competition, it can be tough to gain entry as a top-five player at any position. In order to do so, players must have—with a few exceptions—stayed healthy throughout most of this current campaign while thriving on the court. Reputation matters, but only so much, as the past can't be more relevant than the present. 

    With five sets of countdowns in front of you, get ready to be blown away by impactful play, statistical supremacy and all-around greatness. 

No. 5 Point Guard: Damian Lillard

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, 23.4 PER

    Point guard has been remarkably deep this year, to the point that you could probably fill up nearly all of the All-Star reserve spots in each conference with standout 1-guards. Finishing in the top five isn't an easy feat, not with an elite player like John Wall stuck in the honorable mentions and plenty of reasonable candidates behind him as well. But Damian Lillard has earned himself a spot all the same, particularly because he's been so ridiculously good down the stretch of tight games. 

    As Zach Lowe explained for Grantland, Lillard in comeback mode has become one of the league's most enjoyable sights: 

    We need a separate League Pass Alert for when Portland is down between 10 and 15 points with about three minutes to go, because that’s when Lillard is about to start bombing 30-footers off the bounce. Having a conscience is good for regular humans, but for things to get fun, Lillard must set aside basketball ethics and just start chucking the damn thing.

    During the first three quarters, the 24-year-old point guard has been special. But in the fourth period, he's taken his game to that proverbial next level. And in the last five minutes of games with the two teams separated by a maximum of five points? That's another level still. 

    According to NBA.com's statistical databases, Lillard has played in 64 "clutch" minutes and averaged 31.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from outside the arc. Perhaps most impressively, he hasn't turned the ball over even once. 

    He's quickly become the Kyra Sedgwick of the NBA. 

    Honorable Mentions: Mike Conley, Jeff Teague, John Wall

No. 4 Point Guard: Kyle Lowry

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Toronto Raptors

    Age: 28

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 20.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 24.1 PER

    Kyle Lowry deserves far more credit than he's getting. There hasn't been a better point guard in the Eastern Conference (or guard in general, for that matter), but he still ranks only fourth in the early backcourt returns for the All-Star voting; John Wall, Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving are all ahead of him, largely due to popularity because their play certainly doesn't merit such an order.

    The Toronto Raptors floor general might not win the hearts of fans south of the United States-Canada border, but he should. He's an intense player on both ends of the court who has flat-out carried the Raptors while DeMar DeRozan has missed time with his leg injury.

    Lowry might not be the flashiest player, but he's remarkably effective.

    Effective enough that he was recently named the East's Player of the Month for December, per a press release from NBA.com. Effective enough that his head coach, Dwane Casey, has literally threatened physical violence if the point guard isn't named to the All-Star team by the coaches, since apparently the fans aren't getting the job done. Granted, it's probably an empty threat used for effect, but Casey made it all the same. 

    "I hope our fans get out and vote and don't put it in the hands of coaches," he told Josh Lewenberg of TSN.ca. "And if the coaches don't do it, I'm probably going to get in a physical fight with those guys."

    Remember the concerns that Lowry would underperform once he wasn't in a contract year?

No. 3 Point Guard: Russell Westbrook

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.0 blocks, 31.0 PER

    Russell Westbrook has just been lighting it up...when he's healthy. 

    The biggest knock on the dynamic point guard has been his inability to stay in the lineup during the 2014-15 campaign, though his absences do stem from only his hand injury. Nonetheless, he's played in just 21 games, which means his gaudy numbers are still partially the result of a small sample. 

    That said, the sample has been pretty darn good. 

    Though Westbrook has still struggled with his shot at times and has declined over his past four outings—20.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per contest on 30 percent shooting—the overall product is superb. He's breaking down defenses in myriad ways, attacking the basket with ferocity and making contributions in areas that aren't traditional for a point guard. His rebounding, for example, has been quite valuable to the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    At his best, Westbrook plays like the top player in the league—not just the top point guard. 

    Problem is, he hasn't always been at his best. 

No. 2 Point Guard: Chris Paul

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 9.5 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 24.7 PER

    Chris Paul isn't the flavor of the week in the NBA. It's far easier to get excited about the young players at his position and the many up-and-comers while ignoring what he's done for the Los Angeles Clippers. After all, the 29-year-old has been at the top of the class throughout recent NBA history, and he's just as steady as ever. 

    Though the Clippers have been underwhelming in 2014-15, it's tough to pin much blame on Paul. He's remained an effective defender at the top of the key, and his offensive production is just as efficient as always. Plus, it's still easy to be astounded by his passing. 

    Paul has averaged 9.5 assists per game, easily one of the elite numbers in the Association since only Rajon Rondo, Ty Lawson and John Wall have been more impressive in that area. But each member of that trio has averaged at least three turnovers per contest, with Wall finishing worst in the group by coughing it up 3.7 times during his typical outing.

    Meanwhile, Paul has recorded just 2.1 turnovers per game.

    The last player to average more than nine dimes and fewer than 2.5 possession-ending mistakes? Paul, in 2013-14...and 2012-13...and 2010-11. But other than him, only Jason Kidd, Avery Johnson, Mookie Blaylock, Muggsy Bogues, Johnny Moore and Rickey Green have joined the club throughout all of NBA history.

No. 1 Point Guard: Stephen Curry

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 26.9 PER

    As Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine beautifully explained, Stephen Curry isn't exactly a stranger to putting together jaw-dropping sequences, as he did Monday night in a prime-time contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder: 

    Oh, nothing much to see there. Just pulling down the rebound of a Russell Westbrook miss, taking it the length of the floor, weaving through four Thunderers who tracked back in transition, then ever-so-slightly hesitating while freezing Westbrook with a fake dump-off pass to a trailing Harrison Barnes that turned into a left-handed between-the-legs dribble and a too-easy scoop layup at the tin. Fluid as you please, easy as you like, two points, Golden State Warriors lead.

    What makes Curry so special, and what makes this particular iteration of the All-Star point guard so exhilarating, is that such a play has become less leave-you-slack-jawed rarity than still-leaves-you-slack-jawed routine. He does stuff like this all the time now, and he kept doing it all night to the Thunder...

    The play in question was ridiculous. But it was less ridiculous because it was Curry who pulled it off. 

    This type of exhilarating ball-handling is commonplace during Golden State Warriors games, at least when Curry is on the floor. And it's only part of what's helped the 26-year-old Davidson product become the best in the game at his position.

    Even with a three-point stroke that's been uncharacteristically awry, he's been an efficient scorer and distributor who rebounds the ball remarkably well and is suddenly playing top-notch defense for the NBA-best Dubs. 

    It's time to let him sit in the throne. Though knowing Curry, he'll somehow manage to turn his seated posture into yet another highlight. 

No. 5 Shooting Guard: Monta Ellis

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Dallas Mavericks

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 20.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 18.8 PER

    So much for the shooting guard position being a weak one. 

    Monta Ellis, who keeps a hold on the No. 5 spot largely because DeMar DeRozan has played in only 16 games and Kobe Bryant hasn't been consistently effective for the Los Angeles Lakers, is by no means a weak candidate. He's just a strange one to see here because there are so many young players surging up the ranks while the old guard of the position remains rather effective—for the most part. 

    The Dallas Mavericks wouldn't be nearly this successful without Ellis' services.

    Under the supervision of Rick Carlisle, he's playing the right kind of offensive basketball. Rather than taking long jumpers and turning the ball over on ill-advised bursts to the hoop, Ellis is playing in the flow of the offense and picking his spots wisely. Not only has he posted a 53.2 true shooting percentage that's his highest mark since leaving the Golden State Warriors, but his 11.4 turnover percentage is now his lowest such number since the 2007-08 campaign.  

    Ellis will be under fire when DeRozan returns, but let's allow him to enjoy the spotlight right now. He's earned it.

    Honorable Mentions: Kobe Bryant, DeMar DeRozan, Wesley Matthews

No. 4 Shooting Guard: Dwyane Wade

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Age: 32

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks, 24.6 PER

    Wasn't Dwyane Wade supposed to have regressed significantly? 

    The 32-year-old has by no means looked like just a shadow of his old self during the 2014-15 campaign. Though he can't split defenders and dunk like he did during his athletic prime, he's a brilliant offensive player who's managing to score 23 points per game while shooting 50.5 percent from the field. All the while, he's distributing the rock quite effectively, posting a 38.1 assist percentage that stands out as his top mark since 2008-09. 

    However, Wade still isn't vintage Wade. 

    There's been no hint of any maintenance plan coming from the struggling Miami Heat, but he's only played in 27 games thanks to his strained hamstring earlier in the season. Plus, defense continues to be an issue for the veteran who often only has energy for one side of the court. 

    Wade's defensive box plus/minus (DBPM), which shows how many points per 100 possession a player contributes compared to how a league-average player would fare, is an atrocious minus-two. Not only is that the worst mark of his career, but among all qualified players in the NBA, just 31 have been less effective.

    His offense is more than good enough for him to emerge as a top 2-guard, but he's a long way off from the top spot.

No. 3 Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 blocks, 19.7 PER

    Klay Thompson just continues to show that his improved game isn't fluky. 

    Going into the season, two of the biggest knocks on the 24-year-old shooting guard were his inability to distribute the ball effectively and his utter reliance on setup passes. But while he's never going to create everything off the bounce or become a double-double threat, he's gotten better in both areas. 

    Thompson is averaging a career-best 3.1 assists per game, and his 15.2 assist percentage is the top mark of his professional tenure. In 2013-14, those numbers were 2.2 and 10.2, respectively, and the former came while he was spending even more time on the court. 

    But how about this?

     % Assisted (Two-pointers)2P%% Assisted (Three-Pointers)3P%
    2013-1462.246.494.641.7
    2014-1552.447.587.843.5

    Were it not for the next player in these rankings, Thompson would be a strong candidate for Most Improved Player, thanks to his willingness to shore up his biggest weaknesses.

No. 2 Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler

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    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.7 blocks, 22.3 PER

    In the end, with a one-point lead, Chris Copeland drifted off of Jimmy Butler for a full possession, eventually desperately going to double on the baseline, and leaving Butler, one of the best offensive players in the league at this point, all by his lonesome.

    Splash. Game.

    That's what CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote about the end of a Dec. 29 game between the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls, and it's significant because of that descriptive phrase that modifies Butler—"one of the best offensive players in the league at this point." 

    It's not hyperbolic. 

    Butler is scoring 21.9 points per game and doing so while shooting 48.1 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from beyond the arc. He's getting better at creating offense for himself, and he's become a player who opponents legitimately have to game plan for. His 4.2 OBPM, in fact, is the No. 10 mark throughout the Association.

    And he's done all that while remaining one of the premier stoppers in the NBA.

No. 1 Shooting Guard: James Harden

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 26.3 PER

    James Harden keeps rolling along, carrying the Houston Rockets and asserting himself as a legitimate MVP candidate with a realistic shot at taking home professional basketball's top individual award. He's still playing solid defense—especially when Trevor Ariza is on the floor alongside him—and his offense is just about as good as it gets. 

    Throughout all of NBA history, only 10 players have ever averaged at least 27 points, five rebounds and six assists per game: Rick Barry, Larry Bird (three times), Kobe Bryant (twice), Richie Guerin, John Havlicek (twice), LeBron James (eight times), Michael Jordan (three times), Oscar Robertson (eight times), Dwyane Wade (twice) and Jerry West (twice). 

    Obviously, that's a stellar group of names that Harden is poised to join. And lately, he's been even better. 

    During his last 13 outings, Harden has averaged 29.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists on 46.6 percent shooting. His efficiency numbers are trending in the right direction, and he's making those improvements without becoming less involved in the Houston offense. 

No. 5 Small Forward: Rudy Gay

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    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Age: 28

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.5 blocks, 19.1 PER

    It's amazing what playing basketball the right way can do for you. 

    Rudy Gay has avoided taking long jumpers with as much frequency as he did earlier in his career, and the results have been spectacular for a small forward who's finally starting to justify his exorbitant contract. Only 16.7 percent of his attempts have come between 16 feet and the three-point arc, beating out the 2012-13 season (18.2 percent) as his new career low. 

    Attacking out of the post and focusing his energy on the defensive end of the floor, Gay has been one of the few bright spots for the tumultuous Sacramento Kings. His 19.1 player efficiency rating is the best mark of his career, and he's also been much more heavily involved as a distributor. 

    Throughout the entire Association, he and Blake Griffin are the only players averaging more than 20 points, six boards and four dimes per game. It's an impressive combination of statistics, and it should greatly aid his chances of signing another big contract in the near future. 

    However, Gay might want to enjoy his featured spot while it lasts. When Kawhi Leonard returns to the San Antonio Spurs lineup, he'll be a heavy favorite to move back up in the rankings, even if Gay has been the more impressive player thus far. 

    Honorable Mentions: Tyreke Evans, Tobias Harris, Kawhi Leonard

No. 4 Small Forward: Gordon Hayward

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    Team: Utah Jazz

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks, 19.1 PER

    In 2013-14, Gordon Hayward struggled to serve as the No. 1 option for the Utah Jazz. Without Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap drawing defensive attention, he was unable to maintain any semblance of efficiency. The subject of so much pressure from the opposition, he struggled mightily, though he still flashed enough potential to earn a max contract. 

    But in 2014-15, the narrative has been a bit different. 

    Having an improved Derrick Favors and more options around him has helped, but Hayward's shot—and his confidence—has returned. His field-goal percentage has risen from 41.3 to 45 percent. His three-point percentage has gone from 30.4 to 38.1 percent. And while his free-throw percentage has fallen slightly, the other two areas have helped him get quite a bit better.

    Everything about his game looks better, including his ability to hold onto the ball.

    Plain and simple, Hayward is becoming a star. 

No. 3 Small Forward: Carmelo Anthony

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: New York Knicks

    Age: 30

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, 21.2 PER

    Enjoy Carmelo Anthony while he's playing. 

    "Carmelo Anthony has been resisting idea of resting that sore knee," reported Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter, "but Knicks have been encouraging him to sit, league sources tell Yahoo."

    Anthony has been hopping in and out of the lineup as he deals with that left knee, and there's no telling how much longer he'll fight through the pain. With the New York Knicks trading away two rotation members, waiving a third and getting nothing but cap space in return, this is quite clearly a lost season. As if the 5-31 record didn't make that clear enough.

    Why risk further injuring himself in a pointless campaign? 

    Nonetheless, Anthony has been quite effective when he's actually on the court. Even during his 15 appearances since starting to rest that troublesome joint, he's averaged 24.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.0 steals per game while shooting 43.1 percent from the field. 

    So again, take advantage of watching an offensive machine at work while you can. No one has any idea how many more chances you'll get to do so in 2014-15. 

No. 2 Small Forward: Kevin Durant

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 29.2 PER

    A dozen games aren't enough to evaluate Kevin Durant properly, but that's all he's given us to work with during this initial portion of the 2014-15 season. Plus, he hasn't exactly been consistent. 

    Since returning from the sprained ankle that knocked him out of the lineup for six outings, the reigning MVP has flat-out torched the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards. He exploded for 44 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in his return to action, then followed it up against John Wall and the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders with 34 and eight. During those two combined games, he shot 25-of-41 from the field and 6-of-11 from downtown. 

    But then Durant followed that up with a stinker against the Golden State Warriors. On Jan. 5, he made only three of his 16 shots from the field, missed four of his 11 free throws (including two consecutive ones) and recorded just 14 points, 10 rebounds and three assists during the losing effort 

    Clearly, we don't yet know what we're going to get from Durant, though his track record is obviously pretty ridiculous. That said, we do know just how much of an impact he can have on the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    Per my FATS projections (complete explanation here), the Thunder have played like a 39-win team with him riding the pine. But when he's on the court—even in this relatively inconsistent state—OKC performs like a 55-win squad. 

    That about says it all. 

No. 1 Small Forward: LeBron James

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    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    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

    LeBron James looks—dare I say it—mortal. 

    He hasn't played since turning 30, resting his strained knee and lower back so that he's ready to go during the second half of the season. Even when healthy, he's seen his efficiency decline and hasn't played defense with anything near the intensity we've seen from him in the past. Most importantly, his Cleveland Cavaliers have looked like a lot of things, and "elite" is not one of them. 

    James isn't some superhuman basketball player, though. Perfection can't be asked of him, and though there are plenty of flaws in his game this year, he's still been a remarkably effective asset for the Cavs. 

    Any guesses how many players are averaging at least 25 points, five rebounds and seven assists per game in 2014-15? Just one, and as you might have surmised, it's James. In fact, Larry Bird, John Havlicek, James, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and Dwyane Wade are the only players to post those numbers in NBA history. 

    Poke holes in his game all you want. Just don't deny that he's still been about as good as it gets in the Association right now, even in his declined state.

No. 5 Power Forward: Blake Griffin

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 21.3 PER

    During the 2013-14 season, Blake Griffin was a legitimate MVP candidate, carrying the Los Angeles Clippers to one win after another while Chris Paul was recovering from his separated shoulder. But this year, he hasn't been able to do the same with his point guard healthy and contributing night in and night out. 

    Griffin's shooting has regressed, as he shows even more dependence on his mid-range jumpers than ever before. His rebounding has slipped by a significant margin despite playing about the same number of minutes as he did while first learning how to work under Doc Rivers. And the defense that was slowly improving has gone in the opposite direction. 

    While Griffin was once trending toward becoming the No. 1 power forward in basketball, he's now in danger of falling out of the top five. There are more than a few worthy challengers, after all. But this spot still belongs to the LAC big man, as he remains a highly effective player, even after that decline. 

    His line is truly unique, especially as he continues to function as a hub in the Clippers' half-court sets. It's not easy for a guard to average nearly five dimes per game; Griffin doing so from the frontcourt while still serving as a go-to scorer is undeniably impressive. 

    Honorable Mentions: Kevin Love, Paul Millsap, Dirk Nowitzki

No. 4 Power Forward: Tim Duncan

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Age: 38

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 15.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.1 blocks, 21.8 PER

    Forget about old age. 

    Tim Duncan isn't scoring like he did in his prime, but he doesn't need to for the San Antonio Spurs. After all, he remains a well-rounded player who can crash the boards with the best of them and make a significant impact with his distributing. But this season, above all else, his defense is what should earn the most attention. 

    In fact, ESPN.com's Marc Stein even went as far as calling the veteran big man the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year through the season's first trimester:

    A third of the way through his 18th NBA season, Duncan has been the league's most impressive defensive force. 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. 

    Duncan remains one of the league's top five shot-blockers despite his advanced age and is surely playing more (at 32.1 minutes per game) than his coach wants to be using him during the regular season. But it must be hard for even Pop to resist when Duncan sits atop ESPN.com's shiny new DRPM table, which estimates a player's on-court impact defensively based on points allowed per 100 possessions. 

    In addition, Duncan's 4.2 DBPM leads the league. When he's on the floor, San Antonio's defensive rating drops by four points per 100 possessions to 101.8. 

    Not too shabby for a man who, if he does go on to win the award, would become the oldest DPOY in league history with four years to spare. 

No. 3 Power Forward: Pau Gasol

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    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Age: 34

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 2.3 blocks, 21.7 PER

    Pau Gasol was supposed to be a bit washed up. He was playing uninspired basketball during his final season with the Los Angeles Lakers, acting like a turnstile on the defensive end of the floor and struggling to remain efficient early in the season as the years of professional basketball started to catch up with him. 

    History hasn't exactly repeated itself now that he's with the Chicago Bulls. 

    Not only is Gasol passionate again, but he's been remarkably effective. He's just about repeated what he did in 2013-14 as a scorer, though the rest of his game has improved so much. The Spanish 7-footer hadn't averaged double-digit rebounds since 2011-12, for example, but he's all the way up to 11.3 now. 

    And his defense has arguably been his biggest asset. 

    Tom Thibodeau's point-preventing system is built so that it can thrive with just about anyone on the court, so long as they buy into the basic concepts. That makes it tough to look at on/off numbers, which don't treat this particular big man too kindly. But Gasol's role is a rim-protecting one, and he's taken to it with aplomb. 

    In 2013-14, Gasol's opponents took 9.6 shots against him at the rim per game and converted at a 54.8 percent clip, per NBA.com's SportVU data. But this season, the 34-year-old power forward is facing 10.8 shots during the typical contest, and he's holding the opposition to 46 percent shooting. 

    Talk about a nice comeback. 

No. 2 Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge

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    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks, 21.9 PER

    LaMarcus Aldridge has picked up where he left off after sitting out a pair of late-December games with an illness. In the three outings since, he's averaged 24.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.3 steals and 1.0 blocks per contest while shooting 50 percent from the field. 

    He only took—and made—one three during that three-game stretch, but it's still worth noting how much more he's relied on stretching out the court beyond his typical mid-range zones in 2014-15. Just look at the percentage of his attempts that have come from different zones deep outside the paint over the last two years: 

     % of Shots from 16-23 FG% from 16-23% of Shots from Deep3P%
    2013-1441.544.21.120.0
    2014-1539.741.95.348.5

    Now, just imagine what happens when he resumes his incredible work from those deep mid-range zones. He's already maintaining his efficiency levels by adding a three-point stroke that's fairly consistent and shooting better in the paint, but we know he can hit more than 42 percent of his shots from between 16 and 23 feet. After all, he'd done so in three of the four seasons prior to the current campaign. 

    Scarily enough, given the level he's already playing at, there's still room for improvement from this 29-year-old. 

No. 1 Power Forward: Anthony Davis

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    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Age: 21

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.8 blocks, 31.2 PER

    As impressive as the rest of the league's elite power forwards have been, Anthony Davis still occupies the No. 1 spot and has quite the cushion at this point. The 21-year-old has been that good during his third go-round with the New Orleans Pelicans, thriving in just about every facet of the game while keeping them in the playoff race. 

    Remember how FATS showed that there was a 16-win improvement for the Oklahoma City Thunder when Kevin Durant stepped onto the court? Well, when Davis plays for the Pellies, they improve by 27 wins. 

    With him on the bench, NOLA is the equivalent of a 19-win squad. When he plays, that number jumps all the way to 46. The very fact that the team is still in contention for a playoff berth in the tough Western Conference is a testament to just how good Davis has been. 

    Of course, his individual numbers are still a bit ridiculous. Players averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game aren't supposed to rack up steals and lead the league in blocks. And they certainly aren't supposed to do that while also shooting 56.6 percent from the field. 

    Davis just defies conventional wisdom, and he's going to continue doing so for a long time. 

No. 5 Center: Al Horford

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    Team: Atlanta Hawks

    Age: 28

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.5 blocks, 19.1 PER

    "When he's healthy, he's one of the top 25 players in this league," an anonymous NBA executive recently told ESPN Insider Jeff Goodman about Al Horford. "He plays both ends of the court, and that's what separates him from some of the other big men. Sure, Dwight Howard is better defensively—but he can't really score. Kevin Love is a better offensive player, but he doesn't guard. Horford does it all."

    Horford took a while to round into form, but now he—and the Atlanta Hawks in general—are running roughshod over the NBA, taking care of business against a slate of opponents that featured one Western Conference team after another.

    "I was still working my way back and I was still getting in shape," the big man told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore. "Over the past couple of weeks, I've felt back to normal. Once you feel better, you can help the team a lot more. That elevates all of us more because I feel like all of our guys were at that level and I was the one who was holding us back a little bit."

    He may not be putting up huge numbers, but the Eastern version of the San Antonio Spurs is a lot like the Western one; the best players play within the confines of the system, and they're not necessarily going to take over games on a regular basis.

    And all the same, they still show their value. 

    Honorable Mentions: Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, Nikola Vucevic

No. 4 Center: Chris Bosh

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Team: Miami Heat

    Age: 30

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 blocks, 21.8 PER

    The Miami Heat have struggled immensely in 2014-15, but that's come despite the best efforts of Chris Bosh

    Though the big man has struggled to provide a consistent interior presence on the defensive end and still doesn't rebound like he did back during his days with the Toronto Raptors, he's been a fantastic scoring and floor-spacing threat for the South Beach residents. Not only is he shooting 48 percent from the field, but he's also knocked down 39.6 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. 

    And to his credit, he's played quite well since returning to the lineup after an eight-game stint of inactivity. 

    Since coming back, Bosh has suited up four times. In those outings, he's averaged 19.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game while shooting 49.2 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from downtown. Of course, it hasn't been enough to get the Heat off the schneid.

    But again, that's not exactly his fault. 

No. 3 Center: Dwight Howard

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Team: Houston Rockets

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.7 blocks, 19.7 PER

    At times this season, Dwight Howard has seemed like the clear-cut No. 1 center in basketball, filling the same spot he's occupied for quite a few years now. However, most of those impressive performances came early in the season, and Howard's recent outings have left a lot to be desired. 

    Since returning from his knee injury, Howard has averaged just 16.9 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, though he's done so while shooting a remarkable 62.3 percent from the field. During his last seven contests, he's been even more uninvolved, playing lessened minutes and posting just 14.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. 

    There's a distinct lack of aggression, and it's led to a bit of a premature decline for the 29-year-old. 

    "I haven't really kept an eye on him," Pau Gasol told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle about his former teammate. "I think the team has more weapons now. We'll see. I watched a couple games of him. He doesn't seem to be as aggressive in the post or get as many touches as he used to be maybe, but he's always a big factor in the games. He's capable of having huge nights."

    Capable is one thing. Making it happen is another, and the Rockets could use more of the latter, especially now that they're falling down the Western Conference standings. 

No. 2 Center: Marc Gasol

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Memphis Grizzlies

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.7 blocks, 23.0 PER

    Marc Gasol is typically the leader of the no-stats All-Stars—a player who thrives doing the little things that don't necessarily show up in the box score. Well, he's still doing all those things and anchoring a strong Memphis Grizzlies defense, but he's doing so while also filling up the stat sheet.

    Currently scoring 19.8 points per game, he's on pace to shatter his previous career high (14.6 in three different seasons), and he's still shooting 50.1 percent from the field. The difference has been one of aggression, as Gasol has been more willing to put his head down and get to the free-throw line, where he's taking 1.1 more attempts per contest than he ever has before this season. 

    Forget about the constant free-agent rumors swirling around him. Don't think about the possibility—however remote it may be—that he leaves Beale Street behind for the brighter lights of Madison Square Garden. 

    Just enjoy the fantastic two-way play from this remarkable center, one who's thriving in a system that seems to be built for him to thrive in. 

No. 1 Center: DeMarcus Cousins

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    Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.5 blocks, 26.5 PER

    This season has been a strange and topsy-turvy one for DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings, as Dan Favale recently explained for Bleacher Report: 

    The Kings began the season on fire by their standards, at 9-5, with Cousins at the center of it all—a superstar anchoring a possible playoff contender while battling for rights to the NBA's 'best center' honor.

    Mere weeks later, everything has changed, from the coach to the culture. The 14-20 Kings are fading fast. Mike Malone is out, head coach Tyrone Corbin is in, postseason basketball is but a fantasy and, most importantly, Cousins isn't happy.

    Everything has changed since Mike Malone was fired while Cousins was still recovering from viral meningitis. Not only does the big man seem malcontent, but he's reverted back to some of the lazy habits of his first few years in the league. Plus, the Kings have struggled immensely. As he told Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee, "It's clear. We're not the same team [without Malone]."

    Nonetheless, Cousins has established himself as the class of the position. He's by no means a perfect player, and his fit with the post-Malone Kings is questionable at best. But no one in the league mixes finesse with sheer power like he does, and his strides on the defensive end—earlier in the year, at least—were quite noticeable. 

    Cousins may not be all he can be right now, but he's still a strong enough contributor to earn the No. 1 spot. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into Jan. 6's games. 

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