Ranking Top 5 NBA Stars at Every Position: Anthony Davis Blowing Away the Field
Anthony Davis hasn't just arrived as a superstar for the New Orleans Pelicans.
He's taken the league by storm during his third season in the NBA, asserting himself as one of the very best players, regardless of position. And now, fresh off his thorough dismantling of the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night, he's creating some separation between himself and the rest of the players at one of the Association's deeper positions.
But who follows Davis at power forward? Who takes the top spot at the other four positions? How have the league's best and brightest jumped around since the last edition of these rankings?
We're now past the midway point of the 2014-15 campaign and, at this point, we should have a firm grasp on which players have been most impressive.
As always, these rankings don't allow reputation to enter into the equation. With some emphasis on recent performance, they're based on how each player has fared throughout the current season. Defense matters. Offense affects the rankings. So too does rebounding and the hard-to-quantify intangibles.
Long story short, everything is included in this snapshot of the league's best.
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.
No. 5 Point Guard: Damian Lillard (Previous Ranking: No. 5)
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.2 PER
Damian Lillard may not be an All-Star this year, which is absolutely ridiculous. But he's still emerged as one of the very best players at the deepest position the NBA has to offer. Picking just five point guards to feature in these rankings is basically an exercise in futility, especially since Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry absolutely deserve to be included and can't because there aren't enough available spots.
As ESPN Insider Bradford Doolttle writes, calling Lillard an All-Star may actually still be selling him short. He's deserving of even more recognition during the 2014-15 campaign:
In reality, Lillard is respected across the league for his on- and off-court demeanor, his poise under pressure and for his work ethic. But you can't blame him for feeling the way he does, because Lillard's absence in New York might represent the mother of All-Star omissions.
Lillard is much closer to being a bona fide MVP candidate than he is to being a non-All-Star. And if Lillard makes good on his pledge to ramp up his level of play even more, and the Blazers finish strong, you never know what might happen.
That said, Lillard needs to work on the pledge first.
Over his last 10 games, he's averaging "only" 19.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists on 33 percent shooting from the field and 24.1 percent from beyond the arc. It's only a brief slump, but the Portland Trail Blazers desperately need for him to bust out of it and get this Western Conference contender back on track.
Honorable Mentions (with one extra): Mike Conley, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Jeff Teague
No. 4 Point Guard: Russell Westbrook (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.1 blocks, 27.5 PER
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been significantly better with their dynamic point guard in the lineup, though they're still on the outside of the playoff picture as we move past the true midway point of the 2014-15 season.
When Russell Westbrook is on the bench—either sitting out with an injury or waiting for Scott Brooks to sub him back in—the Thunder are being outscored by the opposition by 2.2 points per 100 possessions. But when he's playing, OKC is doing the outscoring by 3.9 points over the same stretch.
That's a huge impact, and it shouldn't be surprising. This 26-year-old point guard plays with unrelenting ferocity, as if he wants to destroy everything in his path at all times. He's a pest on the defensive end, virtually unstoppable with a head of steam in transition and quite difficult to slow down in the half-court set.
Whether he's exploding for 25 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists, as he did on Feb. 2 against the Orlando Magic, or dropping a 40-spot like he did two games earlier, Westbrook consistently throws up monstrous lines while punishing the rim.
Oh, and he's leading the league in steals per contest, swiping the rock away 2.3 times during his average outing.
No. 3 Point Guard: John Wall (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)
Team: Washington Wizards
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.6 blocks, 20.9 PER
John Wall has continued his development as one of the league's best two-way players.
He's an absolute pest on the defensive end of the court, playing a strange, upright style that still allows him to burst all over the floor and wreak havoc in just about every passing lane. Even though he can get beat in one-on-one situations, his ability to help and recover has made him extremely valuable to the Washington Wizards.
Wall's defensive box plus/minus—which shows how many fewer points the Wizards allow with him playing, as opposed to a league-average defender—is a strong 1.0. To put that in perspective, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo and Garrett Temple are the only qualified point guards this year with more impressive scores in the DBPM category.
And it's not as if Wall is some slouch on the offensive end.
The Kentucky product's perimeter shot is still very much a work in progress, but his ability to drive into the lane creates so many opportunities. He can finish around the basket, helping him score 17.4 points per game, and no one kicks the ball out to open shooters more consistently. For that matter, no player has averaged more assists this season.
No. 2 Point Guard: Chris Paul (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 9.6 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 24.8 PER
Don't fool yourself into thinking that Chris Paul has declined. He serves as a microcosm for the Los Angeles Clippers as a whole, as the continuity has made them rather overlooked this season.
But as Grantland's Zach Lowe writes while discussing why we can't sleep on LAC, "Look past the history and the histrionics, and everything about these guys screams 'title contender.' So why don't we talk about them as such anymore?"
The same is true of Paul. Everything about this guy screams "elite point guard." So why don't we talk about him as such anymore?
Other names have been more glamorous this season, and Paul isn't driving to the hoop as frequently. He doesn't pull up for quick jumpers like he did in his prime. But he's been the conductor leading the charge for the NBA's best offensive team, scoring with a wide variety of mid-range shots and savvy plays inside the paint while constantly seeking out opportunities for his talented teammates.
When Paul is off the court, the Clippers score just 101.3 points per 100 possessions, which would leave them ranked No. 28 in the season-long standings for offensive rating, ahead of only the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers. But when the 29-year-old floor general is playing, LAC's offensive rating skyrockets to 118.8, which would easily supplant the Clippers' season-long efforts as the top mark in the Association.
Overlook Paul at your own peril.
No. 1 Point Guard: Stephen Curry (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Team: Golden State Warriors
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 27.1 PER
How could it be anyone else?
As well as some of the league's other top point guards have played, none of them can top Stephen Curry right now. Thanks to his continued work on the defensive end and the unstoppable nature of his offensive game, the Golden State Warriors floor general is both a leading MVP candidate and the NBA's top 1-guard.
What's become so impressive about Curry's game is that he no longer has to use the three-point stroke as a crutch. Sure, he's quite adept from the perimeter, as he's draining 39.5 percent of his deep attempts while taking 7.6 per game. But he now uses the sheer threat of his downtown ability to open up driving lanes and finish around the basket.
Last season, Curry took 13.9 percent of his field-goal attempts from within three feet of the basket and another 9.5 percent of them from between three and 10 feet. This year, he's taking 20.1 and 10.0 percent of his looks from those respective areas, good for a combined uptick of 6.7.
And he's not just working from around the basket more. He's doing so while converting more frequently.
In 2013-14, the baby-faced point guard made 62.5 percent of those shots from inside of three feet. When letting fly from between three and 10 feet, he hit at a 41.7 percent clip. Now, those numbers, respectively, are 68.7 and 54.7.
It's just another of many reasons that Curry is becoming a truly complete player.
No. 5 Shooting Guard: Kyle Korver (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
Team: Atlanta Hawks
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 13.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks, 16.0 PER
Kyle Korver has never been a superstar. In fact, if I'd compiled these rankings of the top five players at each position during every season of his NBA career, this may have been the very first time he sneaked into a featured spot, and he's doing so only because DeMar DeRozan is working his way back to stardom and Dwyane Wade is injured.
The 33-year-old shooting stud just isn't your traditional star player.
He doesn't put up points in bunches, and he affects the game in plenty of unique ways that are harder for the average viewer to see. As Lowe wrote while calling him an All-Star before the Eastern Conference reserves were announced, we have to change how we think about the league's best players to truly see Korver's value:
We need different parameters for a guy putting up perhaps the greatest shooting season ever. Korver is shooting 53 percent on nearly six 3s per game. If you think all of those are wide-open jobs, you're not watching the Hawks. Korver barely needs any airspace to flick off his quick release, and he's shooting 47 percent—a number that could lead the league in some seasons—on 3s in which a defender is within four feet of him, per SportVU. I mean, I can barely process these numbers.
When you can shoot like Korver, you don't need the ball to be a defining figure on every offensive possession.
Some of the shots he's made induce giggles. When he gets the ball with a defender in his jersey and lets it fly after a double clutch, it still rips through the net. And while we can't discount his team defense, solid rebounding in traffic and reliable swing/entry passing, it's the shooting that stands out in a big way.
Even after the Atlanta Hawks' streak ended at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, Korver was knocking down 52.3 percent of his shots from the field, 54 percent of his three-point attempts and 91.8 percent of his charity shots.
Remember, no qualified player has ever gone 50/50/90.
Honorable Mentions: DeMar DeRozan, Wesley Matthews, Victor Oladipo
No. 4 Shooting Guard: Monta Ellis (Previous Ranking: No. 5)
Team: Dallas Mavericks
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 2.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 18.9 PER
If the Dallas Mavericks were going to have an All-Star, it would've been Monta Ellis. Even with Dirk Nowitzki on the roster and still performing admirably, he's been the team's best player, making a concerted effort on the defensive end and playing phenomenal offensive basketball.
While averaging over 20 points per game, the dynamic 2-guard is shooting 45.9 percent from the field. It's the highest mark he's achieved since his 2007-08 campaign with the Golden State Warriors, but he's also coupling it with some of his best work from beyond the arc. Knocking down 33.2 percent of his deep looks while taking 3.7 per game isn't something to write home about, but it's marked improvement for Ellis.
"He's become our go-to guy now. He's playing both ends of the floor, making big shots for us, and so we felt like he had a strong case," Nowitzki explained after Ellis was left off the All-Star roster, per Dwain Price of the Fort Wayne Star-Telegram. "But saying all that, there's a lot of guys that always deserve it every year and don't make it."
If Ellis can use the omission as further motivation, putting yet another chip on his shoulder, then the Mavericks may well get even more dangerous. And with Ellis on the floor, they're already deadly enough, scoring a stellar 112.2 points per 100 possessions.
No. 3 Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Chicago Bulls
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 21.2 PER
January was a tough month for Jimmy Butler.
In 15 appearances, the breakout shooting guard—who should still be considered one of the favorites for Most Improved Player—averaged 17.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Those are solid numbers, but they're less impressive when considering that Butler shot 41.7 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Two things happened.
Butler started regressing to the mean a bit after his scorching first quarter of the 2014-15 season. On top of that, Derrick Rose began to play more consistently, eating into the opportunities Butler was receiving as a featured option.
The 25-year-old is still having a fantastic season, and he should improve upon his January performance. He's a true defensive stopper capable of corralling the other team's best wing player every single night, and his ability to drain shots from all over the court isn't just going to go away all of a sudden.
Chances are his true level falls somewhere in between January and the 2014 portion of this season. And in an NBA landscape that features a near dearth of elite 2-guards, that's good enough to hold on to that No. 3 spot at his position.
No. 2 Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Golden State Warriors
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.9 blocks, 22.3 PER
For my money, Klay Thompson has improved more than any other player this year—over the course of the season, at least, since guys like Hassan Whiteside have been vastly improved during a shorter stretch. He may not win that award at the end of the year since he was already putting up big numbers, but the increased level of play has been ridiculous.
I'm not just talking about his record-setting 37-point quarter against the Sacramento Kings, or the 52-point outing in which it was contained. Throughout the entire campaign, Thompson has continued to play fantastic defense while showcasing plenty of new skills.
He's creating his own shots with ease. He's driving and keeping his head up so that he can kick to open shooters on the perimeter when the defense collapses around him. Basically, he's transformed from an overrated sniper who relied completely on set-up passes to a dangerous offensive threat who the Golden State Warriors can't afford to lose.
When Thompson is off the court, the Dubs outscore their opponents by three points per 100 possessions. But when he plays, that number jumps all the way to 16.7.
That 13.7-point impact over a 100-possession span leaves him trailing only three teammates—Stephen Curry (an MVP candidate), Draymond Green (a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and on/off monster) and James Michael McAdoo (played only 20 minutes all season).
No. 1 Shooting Guard: James Harden (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Team: Houston Rockets
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 27.2 PER
If you're still harping on James Harden's atrocious defense during the 2013-14 season, you're living underneath a rock and need to actually watch some Houston Rockets basketball. Typically, I hate that argument, but citing this MVP candidate's point-preventing ability as a negative is just so far removed from reality that it now needs to be said.
Harden is not a great defender. He never will be, and he's still caught flat-footed or watching the ball on some possessions. But buoyed by the presence of a great defensive wing like Trevor Ariza, he's made a much more concerted effort to become a two-way player.
Harden has a 1.1 DBPM this season, which leaves him behind only 10 qualified guards throughout the entire Association. His 2.8 defensive win shares not only put him ahead of every other backcourt player in the NBA, but behind just Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol and Tim Duncan, regardless of position.
As shown by 82games.com, he's holding opposing 2-guards to an average player efficiency rating of just 14.8. When he shifts over to the point, that number drops to a stellar 10.5, which is admittedly the product of a small sample size.
His DRPM (defined by ESPN.com as "player's estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions") is 0.24, which, while a middling mark among shooting guards, is still positive.
By nearly every conceivable defensive metric, he's been an asset, not a hindrance, this year. All while playing some of the best offensive basketball the NBA has seen in quite some time, thanks to his efficient scoring and knack for distributing the rock.
No. 5 Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)
Team: San Antonio Spurs
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 15.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.7 blocks, 20.2 PER
With Kawhi Leonard sitting out this season, the San Antonio Spurs have gone just 9-9. But when he's stepped onto the floor—even including games in which his minutes were limited—the defending champions have earned a 21-9 record.
"It also dovetails nicely with what we can see with our own eyes, both on the court and in the standings," Dan McCarney opined for the San Antonio Express-News. "Kawhi Leonard is pretty important to the San Antonio Spurs."
That would be an understatement.
Leonard has remained a defensive stopper, so effective out on the perimeter that he could eventually buck the trend that sees only big men win Defensive Player of the Year. But he's also become a more valuable offensive player, expanding his game's level of versatility while taking on more of a burden in the San Antonio system.
During his rookie season out of San Diego State, Leonard's usage rate was just 14.5 percent. It rose to 16.4 as a sophomore, then 18.3 during the 2013-14 campaign. This year, it's all the way up to 22.6, and Leonard has been up to the challenge, leaving San Antonio with little doubt that he can help carry this team out of the Big Three era that has to eventually come to a close.
Honorable Mentions: Tyreke Evans, Rudy Gay, Andrew Wiggins
No. 4 Small Forward: Gordon Hayward (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
Team: Utah Jazz
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.4 blocks, 20.0 PER
Gordon Hayward struggled immensely during his first season as a featured option. Without the protection from defensive attention afforded to him through the presences of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, he had trouble maintaining some semblance of efficiency during the 2013-14 season, even if the per-game numbers were impressive.
But this year, nothing could be further from the truth.
Hayward is averaging a career-best 19.2 points per game, and he's doing so while shooting 45.2 percent from the field, 37.9 percent from beyond the arc and 81.2 percent from the charity stripe—good for a true shooting percentage of 57.5.
Even with those numbers, however, Hayward's most impressive attribute is his versatility. He can make an impact in just about every area, though his defense is still catching up to speed while surrounded by a bunch of other porous players on the Utah Jazz—Rudy Gobert notwithstanding.
During the 2014-15 campaign, only three players have averaged at least 19.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists with a true shooting percentage above 57 percent: James Harden, LeBron James and this member of the Jazz. In fact, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Harden, James, Love, Karl Malone, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, Hedo Turkoglu and Dwyane Wade are the only ones to achieve that type of line this millennium.
Perhaps it's time to think about Hayward in a more favorable light, even if he plays in Salt Lake City, which doesn't exactly provide him much national exposure. But publicity or not, his level of performance warrants him significantly more attention.
No. 3 Small Forward: Carmelo Anthony (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Team: New York Knicks
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 21.9 PER
Carmelo Anthony might not rub everyone the right way, but you at least have to respect the utter refusal to give up. With the New York Knicks off to the worst start in franchise history as he dealt with knee issues, he easily could've shut it down for the season.
Instead, he's continued to labor away, even though he's grimacing rather often—and not just because of the poor play from the Madison Square Garden residents. Over the seven appearances heading into a Tuesday night loss against the Boston Celtics in which he went for 21 points and six rebounds, Anthony was averaging 25.9 points, 7.0 boards and 2.7 dimes per game. Perhaps most impressively, he helped steer the struggling Knicks to victories in five of those outings.
This season has not been as impressive—individually, in particular—as his last go-round with the Knicks. He's facilitating with more effectiveness, but taking him away from the 4 hasn't made sense. Playing power forward made Anthony so unstoppable in 2013-14, but he's spending just 23 percent of his minutes there now after 62 percent last year.
Even with that change, even while playing through a knee injury that will eventually require surgery, Anthony has been quite difficult to slow down on the offensive end.
Just like always.
No. 2 Small Forward: Kevin Durant (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 27.7 PER
Kevin Durant could easily show up in the section reserved for injured players, but he could also return from his toe injury at any time and has been way too impressive to omit entirely. Even though he's still working his way into a rhythm, the reigning MVP is averaging 25.1 points per game on 51.1 percent shooting from the field, a 37.7 percent clip from beyond the arc and an 85.7 percent performance at the line.
Plus, he dishes out the rock to his teammates effectively, does work on the glass and continues to evolve on the defensive end, figuring out new ways to use his length advantageously each season. Already, Durant has 1.1 defensive win shares to his name in just 22 appearances.
Interestingly enough, however, the Oklahoma City Thunder haven't magically morphed into world-beating title threats when he's on the floor, and that's problematic for a playoff push that's supposed to rest on the shoulders of an eventually healthy Durant.
When the 26-year-old is on the pine, OKC gets outscored by 1.4 points per 100 possessions. When he plays, the net rating jumps up to 5.2. It's a big difference, but that's not nearly enough for the Thunder to feel comfortable about selling playoff tickets quite yet.
No. 1 Small Forward: LeBron James (Previous Rank: No. 1)
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 26.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 26.1 PER
It's not even close.
Since LeBron James returned from his two weeks off, he's looked the part of vintage James. All of a sudden, he's sparking the Cleveland Cavaliers onto what's become the league's longest winning streak, and he's thrust himself right back into the thick of the MVP conversation. He'll have to keep this level of play up for the entirety of the season's second half in order to catch Stephen Curry and James Harden, but James looks reinvigorated enough to make believers out of doubters.
In his last 11 games, the 30-year-old has averaged a scorching 28.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.0 steals per game. He's shot 49.6 percent from the field despite taking on the heavier scoring burden. He's connected on only 31.1 percent of his three-point attempts and 70.5 percent from the charity stripe, but at least he's finally appearing more committed on the defensive end of the floor.
And here's how valuable James has been since returning to the lineup on Jan. 13 in a loss to the Phoenix Suns.
According to my FATS model (based on historical comparisons and explained in full here), the Cavaliers have played like a 27-win squad when James is on the bench over the last few weeks, and that's including the one game in which Kyrie Irving went nuts. Their top comparison comes courtesy of the 2007-08 Minnesota Timberwolves, who went 22-60 with Al Jefferson leading the charge.
But when James has played since Jan. 13? Cleveland suddenly starts performing as if it's a 60-win team. This time, the best comparison stands as a squad from the same year as those Wolves. Except it's the Boston Celtics who earn top billing, and that's a team that won 66 regular-season games and went on to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy at the end of the playoffs.
No. 5 Power Forward: Paul Millsap (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)
Team: Atlanta Hawks
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 20.3 PER
Paul Millsap has been Mr. Versatility for the Atlanta Hawks, thriving in just about every role imaginable.
When the team needs him to settle into a lesser offensive burden and provide more energetic defense, he's more than willing to take on that less glamorous style of play. If he needs to attack the baseline and finish plays around the rim, he can do that. The same is true if he's spacing the court with a jumper that extends beyond the three-point arc or attacking off the bounce.
Millsap can do it all, and that's what has made him so valuable for the thriving Hawks. Sure, he was baffled by Anthony Davis' length when the 19-game winning streak came to a bitter end in New Orleans, but who hasn't been turned away by the long arms of the unibrowed power forward this season?
Against most matchups, Millsap is capable of being that go-to guy when the offense is breaking down. That obviously won't be true every night, as there are some pretty stellar defenders in the Association whose length can give this undersized 4 some trouble, but it is during most games. In fact, he averaged 18.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.8 blocks per game during the fifth-longest single-season winning streak in NBA history.
So far, that's been enough to barely earn the nod for a featured spot over a bevy of contenders that—in addition to the honorable mentions you can see below—includes Draymond Green, Greg Monroe and Kevin Love.
Honorable Mentions: Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Zach Randolph
No. 4 Power Forward: Blake Griffin (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 22.9 PER
"For real though, that shot was huge for me personally," Blake Griffin wrote during an exclusive self-penned piece for The Players' Tribune. "Do I like a jam or two? Sure. I do it for the children. But honestly, there's nothing more satisfying than hitting a jumper. People have been telling me I couldn't shoot since I came into the league."
This year, as the result of thousands of practice shots, he's finally honing his mid-range jumper to a level that allows him to use it as a go-to weapon. Sure, he's dunking less and is often out of place for an offensive rebound, but his game is expanding and making him—and the Los Angeles Clippers—even more dangerous.
From between 16 feet and the three-point arc, Griffin is hitting 40.6 percent of his jumpers, which is rather easily the best mark of his career. And he's doing so while taking a lifetime-high 37.7 percent of his looks from that zone; last year, he took a then-career-high 26.7 percent.
Add in a more threatening game from three-point range, and you can see just how much Griffin has evolved. His game may not be as exciting now that he's not creating posters on a regular basis, but it's helping provide the Clippers with even more diversity for their league-best offense.
No. 3 Power Forward: Pau Gasol (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Team: Chicago Bulls
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.3 steals, 2.2 blocks, 22.1 PER
Despite his 34 years on the planet, Pau Gasol isn't exactly slowing down.
Though the Chicago Bulls struggled a bit during the first month of 2015, the blame can't fall on the shoulders of the Spanish 7-footer. After all, he averaged 19.1 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.2 steals and 2.4 blocks per game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 79.1 percent at the stripe.
His numbers actually trended up.
There's been no veteran wall for Gasol, who continues to provide Tom Thibodeau with an unexpected boost of rim protection. He's performing on both sides of the court and showing no signs of slowing down, unless his last game of January—a 5-of-14 brickfest against the Phoenix Suns—is going to serve as a trend. But let's chalk that up as just one poor outing on the tail end of a back-to-back on the road.
So long as he doesn't have to block dunk attempts from Nikola Vucevic, he's been everything the Bulls could possibly have dreamed of when they signed him this offseason.
No. 2 Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.1 blocks, 23.1 PER
Isn't LaMarcus Aldridge's thumb supposed to be bothering him?
Though he can't use his left hand to box out and experiences severe pain whenever it's hit by an opponent or the ball, he's been undeniably productive since returning to the Portland Trail Blazers' lineup. This big man couldn't stand seeing his team flounder away as he waited for surgery, so he took matters into his own hands.
Since sitting out two games in late January and accepting that he was going to have an extended and surgery-induced absence, Aldridge has returned to the lineup and flat-out dominated. Over the four games since, he's averaged 29.8 points and 11 rebounds per contest, shooting 50.6 percent from the field and even knocking down four triples in nine tries.
He nearly single-handedly ended the Atlanta Hawks' streak on Jan. 30, exploding for 37 points on 24 shots, which provided a dizzying array of mid-range successes. And that came two nights after dropping 38 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Is it possible that one-thumbed Aldridge is the superior version?
No. 1 Power Forward: Anthony Davis (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.8 blocks, 32.0 PER
Even Anthony Davis and his remarkably long limbs might not be able to span the gap between himself and the rest of the NBA's power forwards. He's been that good when healthy, completely altering how teams attack the New Orleans Pelicans and contributing as a scorer in just about every way imaginable.
Need the 21-year-old to knock down jumpers? Easy. He's hitting 41.2 percent of his shots from between 10 and 16 feet, and he's converting on 44.7 percent of his two-point attempts from beyond 16 feet.
Need him to swoop in out of nowhere and throw down some putback slams? That might be even easier for the third-year stud. He has a preternatural feel for angles and timing, and that, coupled with his length, makes it virtually impossible to keep him off the offensive glass.
It seems like Davis can do everything at this point, and that includes daring guards to shoot over him from the perimeter before getting a fingertip on the ensuing ill-advised attempt. He's been the best player in the NBA this season, and he'd be earning strong MVP consideration if the Pelicans played in the Eastern Conference and were currently in the playoff picture.
For now, he'll just have to be content with his 32 player efficiency rating. And why wouldn't he be?
No qualified player in NBA history has ever posted a higher number.
No. 5 Center: DeAndre Jordan (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 10.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.4 blocks, 20.5 PER
DeAndre Jordan isn't exactly an offensive stalwart, though his arsenal of moves has expanded during his years with the Los Angeles Clippers. He may be shooting 73.2 percent from the field, which would be the best single-season mark in NBA history—Wilt Chamberlain is currently in first with 72.7 percent shooting in 1972-73—but that's a bit easier to do when every shot comes right around the hoop.
In fact, outside of three-point heaves at the end of the shot clock, Jordan's longest attempt this season is a made nine-footer on Nov. 10. Per NBAMiner.com, his average shot length in 2014-15 is 0.83 feet, which is lower than anyone else who's played in at least five games.
But Jordan doesn't even have to score to make an impact.
He's the best rebounder in basketball—though Andre Drummond might take reasonable umbrage with that statement—and his defense has been quite good for LAC. According to NBA.com's SportVU data, he's faced 8.7 shots per game at the rim and held opponents to 49.3 percent shooting on those attempts.
Scoring isn't always necessary for players to assert themselves as high-quality ones, and Jordan is this season's premier example.
Honorable Mentions: Tyson Chandler, Andre Drummond, Al Jefferson
No. 4 Center: Nikola Vucevic (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)
Team: Orlando Magic
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.8 blocks, 22.2 PER
It's ridiculous that Nikola Vucevic isn't an All-Star, especially in the weaker half of the NBA. As Sean Highkin wrote for ProBasketballTalk, he was one of the three biggest snubs in the East, along with Kyle Korver and Brandon Knight:
There's no chance Vucci Mane makes it, since the Magic aren't a playoff team. But he's putting up monster numbers, averaging 19.5 points and 11.2 rebounds. He's made leaps as an offensive player and become an all-around threat in the post. The four-year, $54 million extension he signed in October is already looking like a steal.
Vucevic has been a monster on the glass while displaying a developing offensive arsenal. He's facing up more frequently for the Orlando Magic and terrorizing defenders with a well-rounded scoring game that features some impressive touch.
Granted, his defense could still use some work, but he's making strides there as well. His mobility has improved during his third season in Florida, and his rotations will eventually become sharper in the future. Plus, even with those struggles, he's already asserted himself as a definitive franchise centerpiece with room to grow.
There's plenty of time for even more development from this 24-year-old big man, although it feels like he's been around for quite some time now. And fortunately, he still won't have to be taught size.
No. 3 Center: Al Horford (Previous Ranking: No. 5)
Team: Atlanta Hawks
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 15.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.4 blocks, 21.9 PER
What can't Al Horford do?
The big man with the awkward—but extremely effective—mid-range jumper was superb for the Atlanta Hawks during their 19-game win streak, providing the Eastern Conference's best team with a huge two-way boost. He may not be a shot-swatting rim protector, but by holding his position and refusing to give an inch, he recorded quite a few spectacular blocks during the run and anchored one of the NBA's best defenses.
Plus, his shooting spaces out defenses, and his passing skills allow him to serve as a hub from the elbows and out of the post.
He can do virtually everything for a team and coach that now understands exactly how to use him.
During the streak, Horford averaged 17.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Those numbers are already impressive, but they reach the proverbial next level when factoring in his 57.1 percent shooting from the field and 72.9 percent clip from the stripe.
Plus, Horford's offensive and defensive ratings during the 19-game stretch of unbeaten play were 125 and 100, respectively. Achieving a net rating of 25 for more than a month isn't exactly an easy feat.
No. 2 Center: Marc Gasol (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.7 blocks, 22.6 PER
The slimmer version of Marc Gasol has been a terrifying presence for the Memphis Grizzlies.
While continuing to anchor one of the league's most suffocating defenses, the Spanish center has averaged a career-high 18.6 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting. Factor in the rare three-point shot—he's made 2-of-9 triples this year—and his impressive free-throw performances, and he also has a true shooting percentage higher than any of the marks he's posted over the last three years.
All of a sudden, Gasol has begun to do all the big things as well as the little ones. He's still dazzling with creative passes out of the post, his rotations are nearly perfect on the defensive end and he's one of the most underrated off-ball screeners in the NBA.
But now, he's scoring at the most impressive rate of his career, recording 8.2 rebounds per contest and serving as the steadying force for one of the most dangerous teams in the Association.
Gasol won't make too many highlight reels. His play doesn't often get featured on SportsCenter. He doesn't seem to care about making crowds gasp.
He just wins games.
Now, he needs to work on that header. Without that, he simply can't be truly complete.
No. 1 Center: DeMarcus Cousins (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Team: Sacramento Kings
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.6 points, 12.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.6 blocks, 24.9 PER
The difference between the DeMarcus Cousins-led Sacramento Kings and the version of this struggling squad that plays without the big man continues to be a remarkably glaring one.
Per FATS, the Kings now play like a 22-win squad when the center fondly known as "Boogie" is resting on the pine or sitting out with an injury. Their closest comparison comes in the form of the 2005-06 New York Knicks, a team that went only 23-59 during the regular season while led by Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford and Eddy Curry.
But when Cousins is on the floor, the Kings perform like a 51-win squad.
This time, their closest comparisons are the 1983-84 Philadelphia 76ers. With Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Moses Malone and Bobby Jones on that roster, the Sixers went 52-30 before bowing out in the playoffs at the hands of the New Jersey Nets.
Obviously, there's a stark contrast between those two teams.
Just consider it further evidence that Cousins would deserve MVP consideration if the award were actually given out based on a literal interpretation of the acronym.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into Feb. 3's games.