NBA Superstar Rankings 2015: Which San Antonio Spur Is Climbing the Ladder?
It's that time of year again.
The showers of April are coming soon. Taxes are due in only a couple of weeks. The NBA playoffs are drawing ever closer and leading to some competitive races for postseason berths. Basketball fans all over the world are burning March Madness brackets.
And the San Antonio Spurs are charging.
As always, Gregg Popovich's squad is peaking at the perfect time, proving once more that no one in the Western Conference can overlook this collection of ageless and up-and-coming talents. But this time, it's someone different leading the charge, as Tim Duncan has been more of a steady presence than a two-way superstar in his age-38 season.
A new member of the Spurs is submitting his name among the 10 biggest in the Association, though he isn't the only big mover in this update of the superstar rankings. Bleacher Report's Dan Favale handled our last edition, published on March 11, while I took a brief hiatus, but it's now time to see what's changed since that previous countdown.
As always, recent play matters a lot, though it's not going to completely trump the body of work from the 2014-15 season. We're looking at who's had the most impact while in the spotlight, based on an ever-changing combination of defensive dominance, offensive prowess and everything in between.
Before delving into the rankings, 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, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Dwight Howard, Serge Ibaka and Derrick Rose will not be appearing, although they would make the cut—or at least be considered—if the injury imp didn't dictate otherwise.
Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
Though the Phoenix Suns are still afterthoughts in the playoff race, Eric Bledsoe won't get off his torrid pace. Since March 11, he's averaged a stellar 19.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists while maintaining efficient percentages across the board.
Let it speak to the insane level of competition that he's actually dropping out of the No. 10 spot with numbers like those.
DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
Though the big man played rather well in his return on March 22 against the Washington Wizards, it's tough for him to overcome a two-game absence when recency matters so much. He can blame his balky calf for remaining mired in the honorable mentions, though cutting back on the turnovers would have a positive effect as well.
Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
Killing two birds with one stone, the Los Angeles Clippers frontcourt stars have been quite excellent in recent days. Blake Griffin has resumed his well-rounded ways since returning from his elbow surgery, dishing out plenty of dimes while contributing in the scoring column, and DeAndre Jordan just continues to haul in boards with aplomb.
The former will move up into the top 10 if he keeps thriving over a longer period. The latter can do the same if he gets a bit more involved on the offensive game, continuing to flourish even though his fellow star has rejoined him.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Old Man Dwyane Wade is so much fun. The athletic slashes to the basket aren't occurring as frequently, but he's so tricky in the half-court set that he's continuing to play like an unquestioned superstar on the offensive end.
Plus, some improvement from beyond the three-point arc also contributes to Wade trending toward a featured spot.
10. Damian Lillard (Previous Ranking: No. 8)
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.0 PER
Since March 11: 20.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks
Just as he's done all year long, Damian Lillard is providing the Portland Trail Blazers with a significant amount of offensive production. But despite his 20.1 points and 6.4 dimes per game since March 11, he's still moving in the wrong direction, thanks to some slipping levels of efficiency.
During that stretch, Lillard has connected on only 44.6 percent of his shots from the field and 31.8 percent of his three-point attempts. Worse yet, he's been unable to get Rip City over the top for the majority of this seven-game sample, steering Portland to four losses. Admittedly, all of them came on the road, but those four losses are still a black mark at this point of the season.
Don't get me wrong, this 24-year-old point guard is still playing solid basketball, and he's being asked to do a lot. Due to a never-ending stream of injuries to Portland rotation mainstays, the burden has been a bit too heavy as we move into the true stretch run, and that has manifested itself both in his shooting numbers and his defensive performance.
Starting with Portland's return from the All-Star break and ending with a March 7 loss at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Lillard's individual defensive rating was a decent 105, indicating improvement from previous years and the early portion of this season. But since then, it's regressed not just to the mean, but past it and all the way to 113.
9. Kawhi Leonard (Previous Ranking: Other Notables)
Team: San Antonio Spurs
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 15.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, 21.0 PER
Since March 11: 18.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 3.0 steals, 0.8 blocks
Here come the San Antonio Spurs, with a resurgent Tony Parker and a superstar forward leading the charge. The latter, as you've probably guessed, is Kawhi Leonard, who is no longer leaving any doubt that he deserves a max contract this offseason.
Leonard has been a defensive specialist and occasional offensive contributor in the past, but he's turning into a go-to option on the more glamorous end of the floor. He is hitting his shots with more frequency from all areas of the court, and he's displaying plenty more confidence, particularly when he uses his delicate touch on those mid-range floaters he loves so much.
Not only is he now leading the Association in steals per game and continuing to assert himself as one of the league's most impactful players, but he's also broken past the 20-point barrier in eight of his last 12 appearances, following a 19-point outing on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks. Such tremendous scoring threats aren't supposed to fall into the category of rare wing players who actually have a shot at Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Better yet, he's shot 53.5 percent from the field, 38.7 percent from beyond the arc and 78.4 percent at the stripe during that stretch. It's amazing what he can do now that the ligament damage plaguing him at the beginning of the season is in the past.
Maybe it's not such a smart idea to rule out back-to-back Finals MVPs for the 23-year-old who has become the best player on a perennially dangerous postseason squad. As Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry wrote near the end of his phenomenal breakdown of Leonard's defensive game, "In March 2015, just three-and-a-half years after his NBA debut, Leonard might be the most important player on a team that features three surefire Hall of Famers."
8. LaMarcus Aldridge (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mentions)
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.5 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.0 blocks, 22.8 PER
Since March 11: 25.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.1 steals, 0.7 blocks
On Saturday night, LaMarcus Aldridge left at halftime with only 18 minutes under his belt. He'd recorded 16 points and five rebounds against the Memphis Grizzlies, and his Portland Trail Blazers were down nine points. But rather than make a spirited comeback, they failed to break their losing skid without their fearless leader on the court, ultimately falling by 11.
Would Aldridge have made the difference? It's hard to tell, though it's a safe assumption that Rip City would have been more competitive. After all, the Blazers have outscored the opposition by 0.8 points per 100 possessions when Aldridge is on the bench this season, and that number skyrockets to 6.6 when he's on the floor.
This minor injury isn't enough for him to fall back into the injured section, even if he misses one or two more games, but it's not helping him lift his profile even further. After all, Aldridge has been on an absolute tear lately, doing everything in his power to help the Blazers get back to their winning ways with his impressive and efficient scoring, standout work on the glass and continuously effective—but not elite—defensive work.
He is, after all, the engine that makes Portland go, as Dan Devine writes in many more words for Ball Don't Lie:
While Lillard's proven himself to be one of the league's top point guards and Blazers coach Terry Stotts ranks among the NBA's pre-eminent tacticians, it's Aldridge — who finished with 16 points on 7-for-12 shooting and five rebounds in 18 minutes of work before his injury forced him off the floor — who serves as the focal point and linchpin for the Blazers' high-powered, free-flowing offense. It's his ability to operate out of the post against virtually any interior defender, and to draw plodding big men out of the paint with his talent for draining long jumpers, that helps create the mismatches, driving and passing lanes that allow Stotts' motion scheme to function so effectively.
Blazers fans should be crossing their fingers and hoping their star player's digits are fine. His upcoming return to the lineup will be Rip City's best shot at leaving the recent rash of losses in the dust.
7. Kyrie Irving (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mentions)
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.6 PER
Since March 11: 26.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks
Kyrie Irving has become so much more than a flashy point guard who produces numbers that outweigh his impact. It's time we consider him a bona fide superstar who's just as capable of serving as LeBron James' co-Batman as he is dazzling crowds with his ridiculous dribbling skills and uncanny knack for shooting with a hand in his grill.
Scoring 26 points per game since March 11 sounds impressive, right?
Well, it's better than some might think. During that stretch, he's drilled 51.4 percent of his looks from the field, converted his three-point tries at a scorching 56.7 percent clip and knocked down 85.3 percent of his freebies. That's good for a jaw-dropping true shooting percentage of 64 percent, which would trail only Kyle Korver, Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan among qualified players if maintained for the whole season.
His defense has regressed a bit as the 82-game campaign draws closer to its conclusion and forces players to endure extreme amounts of wear and tear, but his offensive production has rendered that almost irrelevant. Point-preventing prowess will ultimately determine where Irving's long-term ceiling falls, but let's allow him to join Christian Laettner in kicking back and resting on his laurels.
If he keeps playing like this, he may actually get to cut down a Finals net of his own.
6. Anthony Davis (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
Team: New Orleans Pelicans
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.9 blocks, 31.4 PER
Since March 11: 27.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 4.7 blocks
Welcome to the wonkyville section of the superstar rankings. From this point onward, it's nearly impossible to determine a definitive order, as it's changing on a nightly basis while Anthony Davis and the five remaining players make the league into their personal remote-controlled butler.
To recap, Davis has averaged 27.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 4.7 blocks since the last edition. He's made major strides as a distributor, letting his former prowess as a point guard shine through with his vision on kick-out passes to the perimeter and feeds out of double-teams.
Hell, he even submitted what's arguably been the best individual performance of the season, exploding for 36 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, one steal and nine blocks against the Denver Nuggets on March 15 while shooting 16-of-28 from the field and turning the ball over just twice.
And despite all of that, Davis is moving down from No. 1 to No. 6.
That's what happens when you miss two games with a sprained ankle, especially when each absence led to a loss that pushed the New Orleans Pelicans further back in the race for the Western Conference's final playoff spot.
In order to keep pace with the remaining quintet, you have to actually stay on the court.
5. Chris Paul (Previous Ranking: No. 6)
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 10.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 25.1 PER
Since March 11: 24.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 9.4 assists, 2.4 steals
Chris Paul is still in point god mode.
Now leading the league in assists per game, he just keeps churning out offensive production for the Los Angeles Clippers, who continue to boast the top offensive rating in the game, despite playing without Blake Griffin for a prolonged stretch. Paul has averaged more than 24 points per game since the last edition of these rankings, doing so while still being heavily involved as a passer and falling mere percentage points at the line away from the 50/40/90 club.
But perhaps most impressive of all was his utter dismantling of the Washington Wizards defense on March 20. Paul dropped 30 points and 15 dimes against John Wall and the rest of the overmatched Eastern Conference squad, and he did so without turning the ball over more than once.
Since 1985-86, he's one of 14 players to record those numbers in a single game. Oh, and he's the only standout to show up on that list multiple times, as this was his fourth such game and first since 2013.
Our trek through wonkyville continues, as the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, a man who was last ranked No. 6 in the superstar countdown, can only barely nudge his way into the league's top five.
"I'm actually surprised that anyone noticed. He's been doing this for a month now, and it's gone unnoticed," Austin Rivers said about his backcourt mate's recent honor, per Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times.
Fear not, Austin. We've noticed, too.
4. LeBron James (Previous Ranking: No. 5)
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.7 blocks, 26.2 PER
Since March 11: 25.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
Here's a bit of info that may help sway Kevin Love's opinion on the MVP race, even though LeBron James somehow feels like more of an afterthought than a leading candidate in that ultra-competitive battle for the league's top individual honor.
Since the All-Star break, my FATS projections (based on historical similarities and explained in full here) show that the Cleveland Cavaliers have played like a 42-win squad when James is either on the bench or taking the night off, as he did in a Feb. 27 loss to the Indiana Pacers. The team's top comparison comes from the 1994-95 Sacramento Kings, who failed to make the playoffs with Mitch Richmond leading the charge.
But when James is on the court, Cleveland morphs into a 53-win juggernaut, buoyed by an incredible uptick in effectiveness on the offensive end. This time, the top similarity score points the Cavs toward the 2013-14 Miami Heat, a James-led squad that went to the NBA Finals before losing to the perfect-basketball-playing San Antonio Spurs.
It's a smaller impact than he's had in the past, but it's a significant one nonetheless. While James isn't getting nearly as much credit for his impressive on-court work because—yawn—we've seen this from him so many times before, it's not as if he's suddenly struggling.
James has prepared for games in the past by reading—most notably from The Hunger Games trilogy. Perhaps he should just turn on the music and reacquaint himself with a certain Simple Minds tune.
If we randomly see him extend one fist toward the heavens while leaning back against his locker with the headphones on, we'll all know why.
3. Stephen Curry (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
Team: Golden State Warriors
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 27.6 PER
Since March 11: 19.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.7 steals
Yes, we've reached the point where averaging 19 and nine is viewed as a slight step in the negative direction for Stephen Curry, who remains at (or near) the forefront of the MVP conversation. Of course, that's largely because he's struggled with his two-point shots, only making up for his low field-goal percentage with his stellar performance from outside the arc and his literal perfection at the charity stripe.
During his last seven outings, Curry's true shooting percentage is "only" 56.7 percent, which doesn't quite measure up to his incredible season-long mark of 62.5. And, as we know, recency matters a lot in these rankings.
Even the smallest negatives resonate rather significantly near the top. After all, a pin being dropped in a noisy room doesn't register, but hearing one dropped in a dead-quiet movie theater has a much greater effect.
Let's not allow that to detract from his marvelous season, though.
Heading into his Tuesday night affair with the Portland Trail Blazers, Curry was recording 0.285 win shares per 48 minutes. Not only is that the best mark in the league among qualified players, but it's one of the better compilation rates in NBA history.
Only 19 individual seasons have topped that mark since the Association was first formed, and all of them belong to either Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Chris Paul or David Robinson.
There's no shame in keeping that type of company.
2. James Harden (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
Team: Houston Rockets
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.8 blocks, 26.6 PER
Since March 11: 27.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.6 blocks
"Now fractional points back of Russell Westbrook for the top spot on the NBA's scoring leaderboard, Harden's ability to consistently cook up 5-star dishes has kept the depleted Rockets in prime position to capture home-court advantage when the first round of the playoffs rolls around," Alec Nathan wrote for Bleacher Report after the bearded wonder's latest scoring outburst.
James Harden just continues to thrive as one of the league's most explosive scorers.
While averaging those 27.7 points per game in his last seven appearances—highlighted by going for 44 against the Indiana Pacers and 50 in a duel with the Denver Nuggets—the 2-guard has shot 37.2 percent from the field. Doesn't seem very efficient, right?
Even without finding much success from other zip codes, Harden has knocked down 86.9 percent of his freebies and taken an astounding 14.1 tries per game at the stripe. That's elevated his true shooting percentage to a rock-solid 56.2 percent, proving both his efficiency and the enduring out-datedness of field-goal percentage.
On the season, Harden's free-throw rate (number of free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt) is 0.56. And that's actually below his career average with the Houston Rockets.
Until defenders figure out how to work against his unorthodox angles of approach and flair for creating contact (hint: They won't for a long time), he's going to continue to function as one of the NBA's weirdest efficient scorers. That should remain true even as his team reincorporates Dwight Howard into the lineup, as the superstar big man needs to take a firm backseat to his potential MVP running mate.
After all, Harden has proved he can carry this squad into the realm of elites.
1. Russell Westbrook (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 29.5 PER
Since March 11: 28.1 points, 9.0 rebounds, 11.1 assists, 2.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
Russell Westbrook cannot be human.
No man should be able to endure such a ridiculously heavy load while carrying a team in the thick of the race for a Western Conference playoff spot and still emerge with a trail of scorched hardwood behind him and a pile of triple-doubles on his resume. Even after the NBA retracted his 10th such game of the season, thanks to a rebound that wasn't, he still has nine trip-dubs on the year.
More are likely coming.
Yes, Westbrook is turning the ball over quite frequently during this stretch. But he's also using possessions like almost no one ever has in NBA history. Seriously, his 38.1 usage rate since the beginning of February is right in line with Kobe Bryant's single-season record of 38.74 in 2005-06 and would be the No. 3 mark of all time.
His turnover percentage of 15.9 over the same stretch is much more palatable than the raw per-game numbers, reflecting his inordinately high level of involvement. For perspective, 51 qualified players have worse marks on the season, including notable stars like Eric Bledsoe, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
Since March 11, he's coughed up the ball 8.9 times per game, and his turnover percentage is 20.7, which—thanks to nine players, including Rajon Rondo and Elfrid Payton—still wouldn't be the worst mark in the Association. Again, the more telling number is also the more palatable one.
It's easy to try picking holes in Westbrook's resume. His style of play leaves him open to criticism, and some of it is deserved.
But with each rebound, point and assist in quick succession, he's building an even stronger MVP case.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into March 24's games.