NBA Superstar Rankings 2015: Stephen Curry Soaring with Emphatic MVP Bid
Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors aren't going anywhere.
As the team with the NBA's best record continues rolling through the Western Conference, scoring with ease and preventing the opposition from doing the same on a nightly basis, the baby-faced assassin is only solidifying his MVP candidacy.
It's a candidacy that has already led several of Bleacher Report's NBA experts to proclaim Curry as the current leader for the award. Kevin Ding, for example:
It's a great feeling to be able to endorse a new face on the scene of superstardom on his own merits. Instead of us canvassing rosters for someone after Kevin Durant sat out and LeBron James stepped back, Curry has been emerged as a full-fledged leader whose sweet scoring and timely passing has been supplemented by legit defensive value (two-plus steals per game!) for the best team in the league.
But does Curry emerging as the most valuable player mean that he's moved up to the top spot in these superstar rankings? He came in at No. 2 in the last edition, so has he made the leap up to the No. 1 position?
The competition is tough. These are the best of the best we're talking about, after all.
In order to find himself in the pole position, Curry's overall performance will need to be incredible, as will his work in recent games. When discussing the league's biggest stars—and remember, you don't have to consider all 10 players superstars for these to be superstar rankings—"what have you done for me lately?" is an important question to ask.
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 has missed too much time in the last few weeks, he's automatically ineligible for the remainder of this slideshow. Recent performances are weighted pretty heavily here.
As a result, DeMar DeRozan, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Paul George will not be appearing, although they would make the cut—or at least be considered—if the injury imp didn't dictate otherwise.
Jimmy Butler, SG, Chicago Bulls
This year's biggest breakout player refuses to slow down. Highlighted by his 33-point outing against the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 27—on 18 shots no less—he's averaged 18.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest during the Chicago Bulls' last 10 games, maintaining his defensive ability all the while.
Pau Gasol, PF, Chicago Bulls
Is it possible that the 34-year-old big man is now having the best individual season of his career? He's averaging a career high in rebounds per game, protecting the rim quite well and recently turned in the best scoring output of his NBA life—a 46-point outburst against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
During his last 10 games, Blake Griffin has been remarkably involved for the Los Angeles Clippers, averaging 21.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game while shooting 49.4 percent from the field. Think about that. He's serving as such a huge hub for Doc Rivers' offense that he's averaging nearly 70 cents worth of dimes on a typical night.
Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard has been Mr. Everything for the Portland Trail Blazers during crunch-time situations. According to NBA.com, Rip City's net rating with him on the floor in the last five minutes of games with a maximum margin of five points is a scorching 36.6.
Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors
Continuing to create his own shots and thrive as a two-way standout, Klay Thompson has made quite the All-Star case for himself despite playing in the loaded Western Conference. If you haven't been able to pinpoint all the improvements made by this 2-guard, fear not. You can see six of them out in this wonderful breakdown by ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss.
10. John Wall (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)
Team: Washington Wizards
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.6 blocks, 20.8 PER
Per-Game Stats in Past 10: 15.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
John Wall has experienced his share of ups and downs in recent weeks—most notably an eight-turnover game against the Atlanta Hawks—but he's continued his overall development into one of the very best point guards in the Association.
One of the very best players in the league, not just among those who line up at his position.
Even though his scoring has dipped recently, especially because opponents are backing off and attempting to force him into ill-advised jumpers, Wall has remained extremely valuable because of his two-way presence. He's an absolute menace on the defensive side of the ball, one who can keep his team in contention just by wreaking havoc on opposing ball-handlers.
"No matter if I average 30 and we're losing, you're going to talk about me individually but not in a team concept and I'm more of a team guy," Wall recently told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt about being in the All-Star conversation. "If I'm playing well and my team's winning, that speaks for itself."
Amazingly enough for a guy who can explode for 20 points and 10 assists on any given night, he really isn't someone who's ever going to chase stats at the expense of his Wizards. And at this point, they really are his Wizards.
9. Tim Duncan (Previous Ranking: No. 9)
Team: San Antonio Spurs
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 15.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.0 blocks, 22.0 PER
Per-Game Stats in Past 10: 14.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.3 blocks
Tim Duncan is just ridiculous. As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote about the 38-year-old big man who's leveraging his center field-playing ways on the less glamorous end into some serious Defensive Player of the Year hype, "I say this once a day to someone around the NBA: It's just absurd how good this guy still is."
Over those past 10 games, Duncan's per-game numbers are admittedly a bit down. However, he's producing them while shooting 52.2 percent from the field and turning the ball over only 1.8 times during the average contest. And just as has been the case throughout the entire campaign, he's absolutely indispensable to the San Antonio Spurs.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Spurs have been slightly worse on the offensive end when Duncan is on the court, scoring 1.9 fewer points per 100 possessions. However, he makes them three points better on defense over the same span, which more than cancels out the scoring decline.
Now, that might seem like it works against any positive arguments about Duncan's value, as the 1.1-point improvement over such a long duration isn't all that significant. However, Gregg Popovich's system is set up so that any player can step in and keep the team thriving. The offensive difference is basically irrelevant and more a function of matchups, teammates and opponents than it is a reflection on the big man's play.
But there's no denying just how impactful he's been while roaming the paint on defense.
8. DeMarcus Cousins (Previous Ranking: No. 8)
Team: Sacramento Kings
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.7 blocks, 26.7 PER
Per-Game Stats in Past 10: 23.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.1 blocks
Without Mike Malone helping keep him steady from the sidelines, DeMarcus Cousins hasn't kept his head in the game as often as he did early in the season, and he's been far less committed to the defensive end of the floor. However, he's continuing to look quite a bit improved on that side while dominating in the scoring and rebounding columns.
Plus, he's still insanely valuable.
According to my FATS projections (full explanation here), the Sacramento Kings are 36 wins better over the course of a full season when Cousins is on the court. When the big man sits, the team plays like a 24-victory outfit. When he's on the floor, Sacramento is a 60-win team.
That's not an exaggeration. He has that much of an impact, though the Kings have largely underwhelmed around him.
"All things being equal, Cousins has been good enough to garner MVP consideration," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote about Cousins, claiming he should be receiving some hype for the league's premier individual award. "And, had he never missed time, he might have also been good enough to save Malone's job, philosophical differences be damned."
7. Chris Paul (Previous Ranking: No. 6)
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 9.6 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 25.4 PER
Per-Game Stats in Past 10: 17.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.9 steals
"Trying to come out there every night like that now and just be aggressive and look for my shot and if it's not going, then just keep shooting," Chris Paul said about his role in the Los Angeles Clippers offense, via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times. "Hopefully, eventually it will go in, but [what's important is] playing with that pace and going downhill and being aggressive."
As he tries to become more of a scorer, Paul has had a few off nights.
Sure, there have been outings like the one against the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 7 that led to that quote: 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field. But the floor general has also suffered through inexplicably poor showings—his 2-of-11 stinker against the reeling New York Knicks one week earlier, for example.
But the combined efforts look strong all the same. Paul has continued to produce incredible amounts of offense for LAC, even if he's slightly shifting his mentality out on the court, taking on his fourth-quarter role before the clock is ticking down to the final buzzer.
If he's looked this strong while gaining comfort, it's scary to think about what he'll do when he's back at 100 percent.
6. Russell Westbrook (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 26.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.2 steals, 29.5 PER
Per-Game Stats in Past 10: 24.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.6 steals, 0.1 blocks
This is what regression to the mean looks like in the NBA.
Russell Westbrook was never going to maintain the scorching pace he displayed upon returning to the lineup for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He couldn't have improved that much in just one offseason, even though there are still plenty of signs that he's become a more mature, more deadly player. Now, he's declining back to the level he should've always been playing at, even if that's still remarkably impressive.
In the five games leading up to his Jan. 9 destruction of the Utah Jazz, Westbrook averaged only 18.4 points and 5.6 assists per contest while shooting a nauseating 27.3 percent from the field and connecting on just 12.5 percent of his deep attempts. It was just one poor shooting performance after another, though he'd rebound nicely with an efficient 25 points and 12 dimes against the overmatched Jazz.
Westbrook's actual level lies in between his MVP-esque start to his 2014-15 campaign (excluding the two-game stint at the actual beginning of the season) and his recent struggles.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
5. Kyle Lowry (Previous Ranking: No. 7)
Team: Toronto Raptors
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 20.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 23.4 PER
Per-Game Stats in Past 10: 23.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.2 blocks
Kyle Lowry refuses to slow down.
Though the Toronto Raptors have struggled to keep pace with the Atlanta Hawks in the race for No. 1 in the Eastern Conference over the last 10 games, it's hard to pin much blame on this dynamic point guard. After all, he's posted the per-game numbers you can see up above while shooting 44.5 percent from the field, 40.6 percent from beyond the arc and 80.8 percent from the charity stripe.
And his usage rate is still ridiculous.
During that stretch, it's been steady at 29 percent, and that brings his season-long mark to 26.9. Not only is that significant because he's been so highly involved with one of the league's top teams, but it also matters because he's much more heavily used than ever before. To put those numbers in perspective, his 22.9 percent usage rate last year was his previous career high.
Normally, players slow down when burdened with such an increased work load. They decline due to the typical tradeoff between volume and efficiency, and it becomes tougher for them to maintain their levels of output throughout a season.
But Lowry is just getting stronger, strengthening his MVP candidacy and preparing for the arrival of DeMar DeRozan in the Toronto backcourt.
4. Kevin Durant (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 29.0 PER
Per-Game Stats in Past 10: 29.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks
Kevin Durant has been on quite the tear ever since returning to the lineup with a healed ankle. He debuted in the post-injury portion of his season with a 44-point, 10-rebound and seven-assist annihilation of the Phoenix Suns (though it's worth noting that he needed overtime to get the job done), and he hasn't slowed down much since.
Not only are those numbers from his last five games—he sat out during the other five of the Oklahoma City Thunder's past 10—quite impressive in a vacuum, but they've come in remarkably efficient fashion. Durant has shot 51 percent from the field, 44.4 percent from beyond the three-point arc and 82.1 percent from the free-throw line, and he's done so while turning the ball over just three times per outing.
It didn't take long for him to play so impressively that he was named the Western Conference Player of the Week.
Durant has missed too much time to factor into the MVP race at this stage of the season. In fact, there's a legitimate chance that he could be left out of the All-Star Game entirely, as the Western Conference is loaded with deserving All-Star candidates who have spent more time on the floor.
But the reigning MVP has already proved that he still belongs among the best of the best in these player rankings. Chances are he'll only keep moving up as he continues to strengthen his 2014-15 resume.
3. Anthony Davis (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.9 blocks, 31.1 PER
Per-Game Stats in Past 10: 22.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.8 blocks
If only Monty Williams involved Anthony Davis more in the New Orleans Pelicans offense...
Somehow, the most talented young player in the NBA has managed to stay alive in the race for a scoring crown while essentially picking up the scraps in the half-court set. He isn't nearly as heavily featured as he should be, and he's perfectly content to dominate while playing within the flow of the offense.
Davis has cooled off a bit since his historically excellent start to the season, but think about what that means for a second. After slowing down, he's still averaging 22.6 points and 11.0 rebounds per game over his last 10 outings while making more shots than he misses, shooting over 90 percent at the stripe and continuing to lead the league in blocks.
This 21-year-old is just unfair.
What's even more unfair is what he'll become when he hones that takeover gene and is given an opportunity to become an even more important piece for the Pelicans, ideally with more talent surrounding him than what currently resides in the bayou area.
Crazy as it is to say about a 21-year-old MVP candidate posting numbers that haven't been seen since prime Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, it seems as though Davis has only scratched the surface of his talent.
2. James Harden (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Team: Houston Rockets
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 26.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 26.8 PER
Per-Game Stats in Past 10: 26.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
Throughout all of NBA history, only seven times has a player averaged more than 26 points per game, posted a true shooting percentage on the right side of 60 and done so while taking at least 20 percent of his field-goal attempts from beyond the three-point arc. Glen Rice was the first back in 1996-97, and he's since been joined by LeBron James (twice) and Kevin Durant (four times).
Now, James Harden is poised to expand the club, gaining entry while taking 37.6 percent of his looks from the three-point zone. No one else in this exclusive group has topped 30 percent, with Rice and 2013-14 Durant maxing out at 29.1.
As Kirk Goldsberry explained so brilliantly for Grantland, Harden is the personification of basketball's future. He only takes efficient shots and relies on the free-throw line to maintain his elite levels of efficiency: "Symbolically, Harden might be the most important player in the world. He's a manifestation of the current trends in offensive basketball. The things that make him such an unusual superstar serve as a leaguewide harbinger of what's to come."
Harden's game may not win everyone over.
There are still those who decry a perceived lack of defensive ability, even though he's been far better in 2014-15 than he was last year. There are still some who refuse to accept that earning—and making—free throws is a legitimate way to produce offense.
I'm sure the bearded shooting guard doesn't care. No matter what public perception of his undeniably effective game looks like, he just continues to help his Houston Rockets win whenever he steps on the court.
1. Stephen Curry (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Golden State Warriors
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 27.0 PER
Per-Game Stats in Past 10: 21.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 2.9 steals, 0.1 blocks
Here comes the shooting stroke.
Over his past 10 games, Stephen Curry has been on the verge of submitting a 50/40/90 line. He's drilled an impressive 53 percent of his looks from the field (making more than half of his attempts in seven of those contests), hit 39.7 percent of his deep tries and connected on 92.9 percent of his shots at the stripe. Though his three-point shooting should still improve, this is arguably the most efficient we've ever seen him play.
Plus, his turnovers are creeping lower and lower. During that stretch, he coughed up the ball only 3.1 times per game, which helps bring the season average down to 3.2. It would be nice if Curry could eventually work into the twos, but his style of offensive production requires him to take risks, and the Golden State Warriors will surely take the bad with the overwhelming amount of good.
"He has gone from an undersized, athletically challenged draft pick to a multifaceted difference-maker on both ends of the court," Marcus Thompson II recently wrote for the San Jose Mercury News. "Formerly contending for mention among the NBA's best point guards, he's vaulted into the conversation for the league's best player."
This year, Curry may even earn some hardware to go along with the recognition.
As Thompson explains, "Warriors fans have been chanting MVP for a while now. This year, they're absolutely right."
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into Jan. 13's games.