NBA Superstar Rankings 2015: MVP Firmly Up for Grabs Heading into Home Stretch

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2015

NBA Superstar Rankings 2015: MVP Firmly Up for Grabs Heading into Home Stretch

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The NBA's superstar bandwagon is now boarding. So, too, is the bus to League MVP-ville.

    It's been a while since we last checked in on the Association's top 10 megastars. Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal tackled the task on Feb. 25. At that time, the league was Russell Westbrook's "personal plaything." We're here to update and expand upon those developments.

    Recent performances, and this cannot be stressed enough, will weigh heavily. The entire season will be considered, but the latest performances will play a large role in deciding which players make this exclusive cut. Basically, what's happened since Feb. 25, when Fromal was last on the case, matters.

    Individual statistics will take priority as per usual. The circumstances under which they come will count for something as well. There will be no going out of the way to bolster the case of a top-10 candidate on a bad squad or one who is not having the intended impact on a potential playoff team.

    As we journey up the ladder, this becomes a hybrid look at the super-est superstars and the most noteworthy MVP candidates. The Association's most sought-after individual honor is still up for grabs, and many of the best players just so happen to be chasing it.

    With this in mind, did Westbrook retain his top spot? How has Anthony Davis' return shaken things up? Is Rudy Gobert officially better than LeBron James?

    Unparalleled enlightenment on the NBA's superstar pecking order is just a click away.

Injured Players

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Before going any further, we must acknowledge the injury bugs elephants in the room.

    Recent performances matter a great deal here. If a player has or is expected to miss an extended period of time, he won't receive any consideration for this list.

    Kevin Durant, Paul George, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin and Jimmy Butler are the most noteworthy examples. If they were healthy, they would all be part of the initial conversation. For now, they're out of action and, subsequently, these rankings.

Honorable Mentions

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers

    LaMarcus Aldridge finishes just shy of a top-10 inclusion, mostly because he's playing below his own standards. He is shooting less than 40 percent from the floor since Feb. 25 and has struggled to provide protection around the rim.

    Defenses are also focusing on him more. The worst season of Nicolas Batum's career makes the Blazers easier to defend, a dilemma they won't soon resolve with Wesley Matthews done for the season. But whether it's the extra defensive attention or lingering thumb injury, just know that Aldridge's time outside the top 10 is (probably) temporary.

    DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

    Fitting into George Karl's pace-and-space system is proving difficult for DeMarcus Cousins. To Karl's credit, he's not marginalizing his big man in terms of opportunity. He is, however, dragging the 24-year-old out of his comfort zone.

    Many of Sacramento's sets now feature Cousins standing outside the post as the Kings' primary playmaker. It's an interesting ploy, but the behemoth's scoring numbers and shooting percentages have suffered a bit, rendering him a fringe top-10 guy for now.

    Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

    Gordon Hayward is a middle-class James. Yes, he's having that kind of campaign. His numbers are up almost across the board, and unlike last season, he's having no trouble scoring efficiently as Utah's featured option.

    The loose James comparison is not unwarranted. Hayward is a chameleon. He's putting up numbers despite being surrounded by a developing supporting cast on the offensive end, and he's functioning at a high level for the league's best defensive team since Feb. 1. That versatility is worth mentioning beside James and, more importantly, in the vicinity of top-10 company.

      

    Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

    It has been a rough couple of weeks for Kyrie Irving. His Cavaliers are still in the zone, but he's shooting less than 30 percent from deep since Feb. 25, which helps account for his small decline in scoring.

    Irving is still the league's most dangerous No. 2 option and has never been more engaged on the defensive end. He's also someone who won't soon fall out of the top-10 discussion. Until his offensive potency returns to its intended level, though, he'll be on the outside looking in at this list.

    Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic

    Were our rankings solely based on what's transpired since the last installment, Victor Oladipo would be more than an honorable mention.

    Since Feb. 15, the sophomore is playing like a seasoned All-Star, averaging 22.6 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals. There isn't much else to say—except "What?!?!?" 

    Other Notables: Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Kawhi Leonard, John Wall

10. Eric Bledsoe (Previous Ranking: Unranked)

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Team: Phoenix Suns

    Position: PG

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 19.2 player efficiency rating

    Since Feb. 25: 17.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.5 steals

    Eric Bledsoe is a superstar. Let's talk about this.

    Although his numbers could be suffering in the wake of Goran Dragic's and Isaiah Thomas' departures, they are not. The Suns' once potent offensive attack is now a drab mix of Bledsoe and Markieff Morris trying to carry an entire team, but the former is as lethal-looking as ever.

    Not that these stat lines are anything new. Bledsoe isn't considered a teenier version of James for no reason. His under-the-radar stardom is more the result of spending the last year-plus being inadvertently tamed within an overly stacked backcourt.

    Now, he's free to let loose and attack at will without being displaced from the rock while playing beside six trillion other point guards. At the same time, he's not out of control. His shot totals have actually dipped since Feb. 25 as he's become more selective, yet freer, with his decisions.

    "I started the season shooting well, and as the season went on, I kind of got frustrated a little bit," he said before Phoenix's March 6 win over the Brooklyn Nets, per AZCentral.com's Paul Coro. "I'm just shooting without thinking and with confidence. I'm definitely in a different place shooting the ball."

    Understatement of the slideshow. Bledsoe is putting in 48.9 percent of his shots since we last met, including a ridiculous 45 percent of his long balls. Both marks destroy his season averages. He's also one of just four players who are averaging at least 17 points, five rebounds, six assists and 1.5 steals. The other three are Russell Westbrook, James Harden and James.

    As other stars get healthy and the Suns likely continue their post-trade deadline tailspin, Bledsoe's stay here may prove temporary. Then again, with the way he's playing now, in addition to his entire body of work, this could be a more permanent thing.

    At the very least, this isn't the last time Bledsoe will be mentioned in the same breath as the term "superstar."

9. Al Horford (Previous Ranking: Unranked)

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Team: Atlanta Hawks

    Position: C

    Age: 28

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 15.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.4 blocks, 21.9 PER

    Since Feb. 25: 15.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.7 blocks

    Al Horford is a superstar. Let's talk about this, too.

    Other NBA luminaries pad stat lines more than him, but few do so with his brand of versatility and well-roundedness. Appreciate the above numbers, because they're insane. If they hold, this will be the second time in his career he's averaged at least 15.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, three assists and one block while shooting better than 50 percent.

    Just two other players have managed to reach those benchmarks more than once during that time: Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol, two future Hall of Famers.

    On any given night, Horford leads the Hawks to victory in any number of ways. He is a featured option in the post. He initiates the offense as a secondary playmaker from the elbow extended. He rotates around the three-point line, mostly from corner to corner, stretching defenses beyond function, because he's a center with deep-ball range.

    He goes from defending traditional centers and protecting the rim to guarding against stretch forwards who stroke threes and move off the dribble without pause. 

    Some of his interior counterparts, from Aldridge to Cousins, are showing signs of late-season declines, favoring injuries or brutal schedules. A fully healthy Horford is staving off similar lapses; he's productive as usual, contributing everywhere like always.

    It's assumed the Hawks have too many really good players to have one great player. Horford is their exception.

8. Damian Lillard (Previous Ranking: Unranked)

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    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Position: PG

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 21.2 PER

    Since Feb. 25: 21.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.7 rebounds, 0.8 steals

    Damian Lillard's distance shooting is reborn. Good thing, too, because the Blazers need his beyond-the-rainbow weaponry more than ever with Matthews done for the season.

    Outside accuracy eluded Lillard through January and February, during which time he connected on just 27.5 percent of his three-pointers. While that's the inherent risk of firing up seven-plus treys every night, we've come to expect volume long-range efficiency from Portland's point man.

    That's exactly what he's back to now. He's banging in 38.9 percent of his threes since Feb. 25, in addition to rebounding the ball like he's channeling Westbrook's spirit animal. 

    There have been lapses in his shooting and scoring, most notably his 1-of-13 showing against the Los Angeles Clippers on March 4. But Lillard has found other ways to contribute, soaring through the air to corral rebounds and wreaking havoc on defensive closeouts, an area of his oft-porous defensive approach in which he's noticeably improved.

    This resurgence comes complete with automatic success at the foul line, and it's happening at the right time. Beyond Matthews' absence, the Blazers have a slightly slumping Aldridge, career-worst Batum and bottom-five bench, per HoopsStats.com, to worry about.

    Seeing Lillard round into superstar form as the season nears completion is a relief for the Blazers, who need all the star power they can get leading into the playoffs.

7. DeAndre Jordan (Previous Ranking: No. 7)

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: C

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 11.2 points, 14.5 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 2.2 blocks, 20.8 PER

    Since Feb. 25: 12.9 points, 19.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 1.4 blocks

    Meet soon-to-be max-contract DeAndre Jordan. He's incredibly tall, extremely explosive, adept at blocking shots, prone to smiling and rebounding with historic frequency.

    Averaging 19.3 rebounds since Feb. 25 reaches absurd status by itself. Really, though, it's par for Jordan's season. He's grabbing 23.9 percent of all available boards when on the floor. A player hasn't done that while averaging at least 25 minutes per game in 17 years.

    In fact, only one other player has ever done the same at all: Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman.

    Jordan's offensive game will always be limited, and his foul-line struggles will forever incite violent vomiting. But this is the most polished version of him we may ever see. He's scoring more on his own compared to last season, recording a top-seven block rate and notching double-doubles like it's no big deal. He also ranks fifth in win shares.

    Fifth. In the entire league. Even after considering what Griffin did prior to injury, Jordan has been the Clippers' second-best player this season, behind only Chris Paul

    Strike the aforesaid notion.

    Only 26, with the cleanest bill of health possible—he hasn't missed a game since March 23, 2011—this is not the most polished version of Jordan we will ever see. His foray into superstar territory is only just underway.

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

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PG

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 24.8 PER

    Since Feb. 25: 21.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 13.0 assists, 1.3 steals

    Don't confuse Paul's slight slide as a demotion. He's still Chris Paul-ing, dominating in every facet of the game.

    If not for him and Jordan, there's no predicting where the Clippers would be. They are plagued by an inconsistent defense and down a superstar in Griffin, which projects as a recipe for disaster under normal circumstances.

    But Paul has the Clippers humming on both ends once more. They own the league's best offense and, in a stunning twist, rank fourth in defensive efficiency since Feb. 25—in large part because Paul is doing everything.

    His offensive acumen isn't up for debate. He averages 18 points, 10 assists and 1.5 steals per game with Magic Johnson-esque ease. Seriously.

    Defensively, the Clippers have been shutdown super with him on the floor in recent weeks. He polices passing lanes and anticipates ball-handler direction better than any other point guard.

    Opponents are shooting measurably worse when being guarded by him, and he's an isolation-deterring wizard. Of the 111 players to defend at least 50 such possessions this season, Paul is tied for fourth in rival effective field-goal percentage (27.6). 

    For comparison's sake, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green holds opponents to a 26.5 effective field-goal percentage in those situations. So Paul is right there.

    And that, along with his infinite supply of offensive heroics, is why he's here.

5. LeBron James (Previous Ranking: No. 4)

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    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Position: SF/PF

    Age: 30

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 26.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 26.1 PER

    Since Feb. 25: 28.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.9 steals

    Landing outside the top three is not an insult. Other players are merely having better individual seasons than the greatest basketball player on the planet.

    There may even be a selection bias against James here, the same way there is when it comes to his never-ending MVP candidacy. Here's Hardwood Paroxysm's David Ramil with more:

    LeBron James is the San Antonio Spurs of individual basketball players. Maybe that doesn’t make sense considering the Spurs (and their step-child, the Hawks) are the epitome of team basketball, but I mean in the way that both have been so consistently good for so long that you kind of take them for granted. ...

    In perhaps the most backhanded of compliments, James’ dominance has been the norm for so long, it’s become more interesting to look for chinks in the 270-lb. armor than to appreciate the daily excellence. And, just like the Spurs, we’re quick to reject them despite years of proven excellence.

    Playing alongside two other ball-hungry superstars in Kevin Love and Irving has forced James to adapt, and he's still adjusting. His three-point success rate is the worst it's been since 2010-11, and his overall field-goal percentage, while approaching 50 percent, hasn't been this low since 2008-09.

    James is also turning the ball over nearly 16 percent of the time. That's a career high, and therefore a career worst.

    Most of his numbers have improved recently. He's shooting better than 50 percent overall and 41 percent from three since our last superstar ladder, and he remains on track to average at least 26 points, 5.5 rebounds, seven assists and 1.5 steals for the seventh time in his career. 

    No other NBA player has done this more than once. To that end, James isn't glued to this No. 5 slot. Climbing higher by season's end is totally possible, if not likely.

4. Russell Westbrook (Previous Ranking: No. 1)

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: PG

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 30.1 PER

    Since Feb. 25: 40.2 points, 12.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 2.6 steals

    Unconditionally worshiping Westbrook's Oscar Robertson impression remains fun, but the time to delve deeper is here—hence his dip in status.

    Despite his triple-double cannonade, which began on Feb. 24 against the Indiana Pacers, the Thunder have failed to put adequate distance between themselves and a lottery finish. The New Orleans Pelicans are still right there, making life uncomfortable for anyone who thought the battle for eighth place would be a formality.

    Oklahoma City is basically playing .500 basketball during Westbrook's stats-stocking assault. This group fell to a Chicago Bulls squad missing Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Butler, and it barely beat the lowly Los Angeles Lakers, tumbling Toronto Raptors and tanking Philadelphia 76ers.

    Part of this discussion comes down to impact, and while Westbrook has the numbers to back up his standing, the wins just aren't there. Since tallying that stretch-triggering triple-double against Indiana, Oklahoma City's offense and defense are even statistically better without him compared to with him.

    This is not to imply the Thunder are better off without him in general. They're most certainly not. Westbrook's numbers are insane. But they are accompanied by baggage—41.7 shooting and 5.6 turnovers per game since Feb. 25—that's too conspicuous for him to retain his top spot from last time.

3. James Harden (Previous Ranking: No. 2)

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: SG

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 27.0 PER

    Since Feb. 25: 25.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 1.3 steals

    Pump the brakes on all trolling. Please.

    Harden is playing magnificent basketball, carrying the Houston Rockets within striking distance of the Western Conference's No. 2 seed, just behind the ebbing Memphis Grizzlies. That he's doing this with Howard watching from the sidelines is even more impressive. 

    Still, let's not ignore his inefficiency of late; his shooting percentages are traveling in the wrong direction since Feb. 25. He's burying just 40.2 percent of his shots overall, drilling only 30.6 percent of his three-balls and turning the ball over at an alarming, career-worst rate.

    Nitpicking over.

    The Rockets would be nothing without Harden. They have no proven point guard on the roster, and their offense hits Sixers-levels of anemia when he steps off the floor. His reckless, contact-creating dribble drives and unabashed chucking are the reason why Houston is a modest winning streak away from unseating the second-place Grizzlies.

    Few superstars can carry teams this well on their own anymore. Westbrook is the perfect example. His energy hasn't saved the Thunder from having to fend off the Pelicans. Harden has played on another, otherworldly level all season—a performance that, while sometimes ugly, is to be revered for its immeasurable significance.

2. Stephen Curry (Previous Ranking: No. 3)

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: PG

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 2.2 steals, 27.8 PER

    Since Feb. 25: 24.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.0 steals

    Stephen Curry is proof that life exists outside of our solar system. His stats haven't changed much, but that's the point. Head coach Steve Kerr is monitoring his playing time like a hawk this side of the All-Star break, yet Curry's numbers haven't suffered.

    It's his obscene efficiency that catapults him past Harden and Westbrook. He's shooting 50 percent from the floor and 90 percent from the charity stripe since Feb. 25. 

    Oh, and he's finding nylon on 53.6 percent of his treys while throwing up 8.6 per game during this time. We've officially reached the point where he turns around before his shots even fall, like he's some vatic visionary. And hey, perhaps he is.

    His skill set is illogical, and his numbers follow suit. He splits quadruple-teams, weaves in and out of traffic with peerless precision and takes off-balance shots that leave Kerr annoyed, amused and ecstatic all at the same time.

    Curry is also on pace to register the third-highest true shooting percentage of any player to average at least 23 points and seven assists, behind only Wilt Chamberlain (no three-point line) and James—neither of whom lived on the perimeter as much as he does. 

    "Chagrined to gratified within like three seconds," Kerr said of his reaction to one of Curry's shots against the Clippers on March 8, per Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. "That pretty much sums it up."

    If only we could sum up Curry's streaking star so succinctly.

1. Anthony Davis (Previous Ranking: Unranked)

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    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Position: PF

    Age: 22

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.8 blocks, 31.4 PER

    Since Feb. 25: 29.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 4.2 blocks

    Davis is back, so the No. 1 spot is gone.

    Certain people still talk about him like he's on threshold of superstardom or greatness, which is cute. It's also untrue. Davis is already great and has been for a while. This season's sample only validates his megastar status further.

    Pelicans head coach Monty Williams appears to have received that same memo. Davis is being featured within New Orleans' offense more than ever since returning from injury on March 4. His usage rate has erupted, leaving him free to post stat lines that cannot even be replicated in video games while still improving.

    Consider his passing. The Pelicans' playmaker pool is depleted, and they're now trotting out five-man lineups that call for Davis as the secondary, or sometimes primary, facilitator. He has responded by more than doubling his assist average since returning, showcasing a part of his arsenal that previously went unused.

    "Anthony Davis has generated 211 points on 91 assists this year," writes Fromal. "That's over 2.3 points per assist. Point guard vision showing up on kick-out chances."

    By comparison, Paul, the league's leading assist man, is averaging 2.27 points per dime; Wall, who ranks second, is also at 2.27; and Lawson, who is third, comes in with 2.31.

    What we're trying to say is Davis does everything. Absolutely everything. And he does so efficiently. As it stands, he's in play to register the highest PER in league history. That's truly something.

    Or, to be more exact, it's Davis being Davis.

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are current heading into March 11's games.


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