Ranking the Top 25 Players in the NBA Right Now

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 10, 2015

Ranking the Top 25 Players in the NBA Right Now

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    Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

    The NBA's Eastern Conference is no longer the Leastern Conference. 

    Though the West may still boast overall supremacy, thanks to the unabashed dominance of the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, the gap between the two halves of the Association is narrowing. That's true for the teams, and it also holds for the premier individuals. 

    In these rankings of the league's best players—determined by looking at anything and everything that happens on the basketball court while also taking reputation into account (only a bit)—the East doesn't lag too far behind. 

    Of the top 25, 10 come from the conference typically perceived as the weaker one. If we include the five honorable mentions and the 15 other players who were considered for those final spots, the total grows to 20 out of 45—a percentage that would've been inconceivable just a year prior. 

    The NBA is changing quickly.

Injured Players

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    Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

    Before we dive into the rankings, it's worth noting that injured players will not be considered for any of the featured spots, nor will they 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.

    As a result, Kyrie Irving and Rudy Gobert will not appear, although they would make the cut—or at least be considered—if the injury imp didn't dictate otherwise.

Honorable Mentions

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    LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, San Antonio Spurs

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 15.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.3 steals, 1.3 blocks, 18.9 PER

    Has LaMarcus Aldridge fit in seamlessly with his new teammates on the San Antonio Spurs? Not exactly, as he's taken on a declining role without increasing his notoriously shaky efficiency levels, and the NBA's second-best team is actually a bit worse when he's on the court. But in a vacuum, Aldridge remains one of the league's premier power forwards and should continue to adjust as the year progresses. 

    Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.2 blocks, 17.6 PER

    Marc Gasol remains one of the most versatile players at his position, but he's been a bit slow for extended portions of the current campaign. Seeing as his defensive game relies almost entirely on superhuman levels of timing and anticipating, losing a step when he rotates to his spots makes a big impact on a Memphis Grizzlies squad that hasn't been nearly as strong as its record might indicate. 

    Brandon Knight, PG/SG, Phoenix Suns

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.4 blocks, 19.3 PER

    Apparently, switching Brandon Knight to a role that sees him spend far more time at shooting guard has worked wonders. The Kentucky product looks quite comfortable operating next to Eric Bledsoe, and he's now thriving both as a floor-spacing spot-up threat and a ball-handling creator for himself and his teammates. 

    Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 24.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 21.8 PER

    Offensively, Damian Lillard has been incredibly valuable to the Portland Trail Blazers, averaging 24.5 points and 7.0 assists. He's not been particularly efficient, but that's understandable given the insane amount of responsibility and defensive attention he must shoulder in Rip City. It's defense that continues to be a problem, and his minus-2.2 defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) cancels out too much of the value generated on the scoring end. 

    Kevin Love, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 21.1 PER

    Though Kevin Love looks significantly more comfortable now that he's in his second year working alongside LeBron James, he's still too much of a sidekick to comfortably earn one of the coveted top-25 spots. His usage rate is creeping up toward the levels it reached in Minnesota, but the Cleveland Cavaliers could still rely on his abilities a bit more. 

    Others receiving consideration: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Carmelo Anthony, Nicolas Batum, Bradley Beal, Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Reggie Jackson, Tony Parker, Kristaps Porzingis, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kemba Walker, Hassan Whiteside, Andrew Wiggins

25. Dwyane Wade

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Position: SG

    Age: 33

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 19.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.5 blocks, 22.1 PER

    Dwyane Wade hasn't been the same Dwyane Wade we've come to know and love over his many years with the Miami Heat, but he's remained quite effective.

    Defense is now a luxury when this shooting guard is on the court, as Father Time has forced him to take it easy on a number of possessions. When locked in, he can still reject a shot with ferocious fervor or buckle down in his bent-kneed stance, but those trips down the floor come fewer and further between.

    And on offense, Wade also hasn't looked like vintage Flash. 

    He's shooting only 45.5 percent from the field, which would be the lowest mark of his professional career. He's taken just 22 shots from beyond the arc in his first 18 appearances, and he's made only six of those downtown attempts. Even his aggressiveness has declined; Wade's free-throw rate of 0.305 is also the lowest mark of his tenure with the Heat. 

    Nonetheless, Wade still picks his spots well, probing the defense at the right moments and showing off his passing chops in a Miami offense that features seemingly countless potent weapons. Defenders continue to bite for his vaunted pump fake, setting him up for easy looks from mid-range zones and cheap whistles that boost his totals. 

    It's a different Wade. It's a version that isn't as effective as the one we've seen in previous years. 

    But it's still Dwyane Wade. 

24. Chris Bosh

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 31

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.1 blocks, 21.7 PER

    Kudos to Chris Bosh for not only working his way back from the life-threatening blood clots in his lungs that prematurely ended his 2014-15 campaign, but also for altering his game in a way that would benefit the Miami Heat. 

    Though the 31-year-old power forward is fully capable of expending his energy on the offensive end, raining down three-point buckets and torturing defenders from mid-range territory, he's also become a plus on the defensive end. We saw hints of this during the LeBron James era in South Beach, but Bosh is now more impactful on the point-preventing side than he's been since he was just leaving Georgia Tech, ready to take the NBA by storm as part of the famed 2003 draft class. 

    His DBPM (1.5) is higher than it's been since his rookie season. His individual defensive rating (97) is the lowest it's ever been. When he's on the court, Miami's team defensive rating drops from a solid 102.8 to a mark of 98.8 that would leave the Heat among the Association's most stingy units. ESPN.com's Defensive Real Plus/Minus gives him a score of 2.3, which places him at No. 37 throughout the NBA and No. 8 at his position. 

    The list goes on. At this point, it's undeniable that Bosh has made massive strides on defense, and it's him that's keyed the Heat arriving as one of the league's true juggernauts on the less glamorous end. 

23. DeAndre Jordan

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: C

    Age: 27

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.6 blocks, 19.7 PER

    DeAndre Jordan still hasn't become a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and he won't until he becomes more than just a shot-blocking menace.

    He's still a bit too porous around the rim, and NBA.com's SportVU data shows that he's allowing opponents to shoot 48.4 percent at the basket when he's the primary defender. Among the 57 players who are facing at least five shots per game and have suited up at least 10 times, 31 have been better. 

    Still, the rest of Jordan's game helps him out.

    Though he'll always be a liability at the supposedly charitable stripe, he's ridiculously adept at getting and finishing attempts from the restricted area. It might seem easy to average 11.1 points per game while shooting a league-best 68.3 percent from the field. But if that were the case, why don't more do it?

    We also can't forget about the 13.1 rebounds per contest, since Jordan continues to prove he's an absolute monster on the glass. The ability to end defensive possessions and create second-chance opportunities is vital to the Clippers, and this 27-year-old center is one of the league's best at both. 

22. John Wall

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    Team: Washington Wizards

    Position: PG

    Age: 25

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, 20.6 PER

    Putting together a season in which you average 20 points and 10 assists is rather difficult. That may be part of the reason the only qualified players to do so in NBA history are Michael Adams, Tiny Archibald, Tim Hardaway, Kevin Johnson (three times), Magic Johnson (three times), Chris Paul (twice), Oscar Robertson (five times) and Isiah Thomas (four times). 

    John Wall still has a chance to join the exclusive club, but the early portion of his season hasn't gone so swimmingly for the struggling Washington Wizards. In fact, only three of his first 19 performances have resulted in a 20-10 outing—highlighted by a 35-point, 10-dime showing in a Dec. 1 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

    Though the dynamic point guard entered the 2015-16 campaign as the presumptive best floor general in his half of the NBA, he's had trouble backing up those widespread sentiments. He's trended in the right direction lately, but the overall turnover issues, poor shooting from inside the three-point arc (and outside it) and surprisingly porous defense have all suppressed his value.

    If you're looking for a reason the Wizards began the season falling well below .500, their point guard fighting an uphill battle to earn a spot as a top-25 player, despite entering the year with legitimate hopes of grabbing a top-10 slot, would be right near the top of the list. 

21. Andre Drummond

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    Team: Detroit Pistons 

    Position: C

    Age: 22

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 18.0 points, 16.5 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.4 blocks, 24.4 PER

    You don't have to dig deep in order to see the massive impact Andre Drummond has on the Detroit Pistons. 

    When the big man is taking up space in the paint, Detroit allows 99.2 points per 100 possessions while scoring 105.2 over the same stretch. The former would give the Pistons the league's No. 2 defensive rating, and the latter would allow their offensive rating to fit in at No. 11. But when he's on the bench, the defensive rating skyrockets to 106.8 (No. 26 in the NBA), and the points scored per 100 possessions simultaneously plummet to 92.2 (No. 30). 

    That's a massive difference, and it makes sense. 

    Everything in the Motor City is built around Drummond, thanks to head coach/president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy and his reliance on a four-out, one-in system. The 22-year-old's presence on the interior creates second-chance opportunities and carves out plenty of space for the myriad shooters Detroit can throw out around the perimeter. Plus, he's improved on the defensive end, becoming a solid rim protector. 

    Drummond's game still isn't close to perfect, and it won't be until he develops more reliable post moves while improving his timing on defense. He still ranks in the 19.5 percentile on post-up possessions, per NBA.com's SportVU data, and his assignments shoot only 1.2 percent worse than average when he's guarding them. 

    But the Pistons do a fantastic job mitigating his flaws and playing to his strengths, even though they still lack some of the complementary pieces necessary for this team to become a true contender. 

20. Dirk Nowitzki

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    Team: Dallas Mavericks

    Position: PF

    Age: 37

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.6 blocks, 22.7 PER

    Wasn't Dirk Nowitzki supposed to be on the decline? 

    The 37-year-old is currently dancing on the grave Father Time built for his NBA career, posting historically excellent percentages while carrying the offense of the surprisingly competitive Dallas Mavericks. 

    Though he's only shot better than 50 percent from the field twice in his professional tenure—once in 2006-07, when he knocked down 50.2 percent of his looks, and again with a field-goal percentage of 51.7 during the title-winning 2010-11 campaign—he's made more shots than he's missed this year. 

    Nowitzki is also taking 3.5 treys per game and drilling them at a 43.8 percent clip, which would supplant 2009-10 (42.1 percent on 1.5 deep looks per contest) as the most accurate portion of his career. And if that's not enough, he's knocked down 89 percent of his tries from the stripe, putting him on the verge of joining the 50/40/90 club for the second time. 

    As Tom Ley wrote for Deadspin, he reverts back to his youth as soon as he gains possession:

    He's doing this the same way he always has, by hitting open shots on the pick-and-pop, torturing defenders with that one-legged fadeaway, and dominating people in the post. You can see Dirk's age when he takes a stiff-legged jog from one end of the court to the other, but once the ball gets in his hands he starts readying his move, he might as well be 23 again.

    Is the German 7-footer a lockdown defender? Nope, though he does have a 0.4 DBPM, indicating that he's a bit better than an average stopper. Is he a game-changing rebounder? Again, not really. 

    Nonetheless, he's such an offensive genius that it doesn't even matter on most nights. 

19. Derrick Favors

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    Team: Utah Jazz

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 24

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.2 blocks, 25.8 PER

    It's time to accept that Derrick Favors has become a star. 

    He's been a key player on both ends of the floor for the Utah Jazz, thriving as a go-to option on offense while suffocating the opposition with his ability to either protect the rim or use his lateral quickness outside of the paint. 

    Last season, the big man established a new high-water mark when he drilled 34.1 percent of his looks from between 16 feet and the three-point arc. This year, he's knocking down 40.5 percent of those attempts, and the increase is coming despite him taking them at a higher rate than ever before. Favors is also on pace to post a new career best from between 10 and 16 feet, and he's simultaneously shattering his previous high from between three and 10 feet. 

    His offensive game is quickly expanding, and it shouldn't be all that surprising that NBA.com's SportVU data now shows he's in the 69.1 percentile for post-up plays, the 67.2 percentile as a roll man and the 93.2 percentile on put-back opportunities. He's simply becoming a more well-rounded offensive threat, one who doesn't have to live in the paint while waiting for timely opportunities to dive toward the rim. 

    But the well-rounded nature of his game doesn't just apply to offense. Even if we isolate the scope of analysis to his box-score numbers, his line stands out for its unique versatility. Favors is one of just three players recording at least 17 points, nine rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block during the 2015-16 campaign. 

    The other two? Anthony Davis and Paul Millsap, neither of whom represents shabby company. 

18. Tim Duncan

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 39 Irrelevant

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 9.7 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.7 blocks, 19.3 PER

    Say hello to the old man who should be the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year.

    Tim Duncan has never won that prestigious individual award, but his current pace should put him on track to add the trophy to his massive collection of accolades. After all, it's difficult to find any basic stat or advanced metric that shines a negative light on his point-preventing ability. 

    Beginning with DBPM, Duncan boasts a mark of 5.9 that not only beats his previous career-best of 5.1—set all the way back in 2006-07—but also leads the entire league. His 90 defensive rating doesn't quite pace the NBA, but it does leave him behind only Hassan Whiteside among all qualified players. 

    Sure, the Spurs are a historically suffocating unit without him on the floor, allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, but they're slightly better with Duncan playing. The defensive rating drops to 93.7, and that's a trend that doesn't hold true for the reigning DPOY. Kawhi Leonard's presence on the court is actually accompanied by a slight rise in defensive rating this season, jumping from 93.3 to a flat 94 when he plays. 

    Nylon Calculus' rim-protection numbers indicate that Duncan saves more points at the basket per 36 minutes than every player not named Rudy Gobert, Festus Ezeli or Whiteside. ESPN.com's Defensive Real Plus/Minus puts the future Hall of Famer in the No. 1 spot by a sizable margin.  NBA.com's player-tracking databases show that he's dropping his assignments' field-goal percentages 8.8 points below their average marks from inside 10 feet. 

    There basically isn't a flaw in his defensive profile, other than the fact that he doesn't block as many shots as some of the more glamorous—but less effective—interior stoppers. 

17. Eric Bledsoe

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    Team: Phoenix Suns

    Position: PG/SG

    Age: 26

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 21.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 21.7 PER

    Eric Bledsoe must love playing next to Brandon Knight. 

    Having a dominant guard next to him—one who's willing to accept his role as an occasional ball-handler and occasional spot-up threat—has taken offensive responsibility away from this particular Kentucky product, allowing him to attack even more ferociously at the opportune moments. He's been able to produce plenty of points and assists in efficient fashion while still conserving enough energy to thrive as an athletic defender. 

    As a result, it's inordinately difficult to find a single flaw in his burgeoning resume. 

    Scoring? Bledsoe's attacking mentality and three-point stroke have allowed him to emerge as one of just 11 players—Jimmy Butler, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Blake Griffin, James Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook are the others—averaging more than 20 points per game with a true-shooting percentage of at least 56 percent. 

    Passing? Though turnovers have occasionally been an issue, Bledsoe is averaging 6.3 dimes. Per NBA.com's SportVU data, he's also chipping in with another 1.4 secondary assists per contest, which leaves him trailing only 10 players. After accounting for that and his free-throw assists, he sits at No. 19 on the adjusted dime-dropping leaderboard—not too shabby for a score-first player who shares the backcourt with another natural point guard. 

    Rebounding? Averaging 4.2 rebounds per contest isn't easy for a 1-guard. Among qualified contributors, the only players at the position averaging more boards than Bledsoe this season are Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Curry, Lowry, T.J. McConnell, Damian Lillard and Jarrett Jack.

16. Al Horford

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    Team: Atlanta Hawks

    Position: C

    Age: 29

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.5 blocks, 21.3 PER

    Let's turn it over to Bleacher Report's Dan Favale, who recently explained that Al Horford was one of the marquee players who has reinvented his game in 2015-16: 

    Consider this: Horford has almost twice as many spot-up possessions under his belt this season as Kyle Korver, one of the foremost authorities on catch-and-shoot situations. That's stupid-incredible.

    Here's a guy who has never allocated even five percent of his looks to long-range missiles and is now leaning on the three-ball around 25 percent of the time while shooting 36 percent from distance and maintaining his career effective field-goal percentage.

    These aren't glamour shots Horford is jacking up, and that merely accentuates his reinvention. He executes in whatever way the Hawks need him to—even if it means leaving the paint to orbit the perimeter as part-superstar, part-glorified jump-shot specialist. 

    If you're making a list of unselfish superstars—yes, superstars—Horford would belong right at the top of the list. He's consistently proved that he's willing to fill whatever role the Atlanta Hawks desire to put him in, and he's always effective while doing so. 

    It doesn't matter if he's faced with less involvement in the scoring game. It doesn't make a difference if he's asked to step back from his deadly mid-range zones to space out the court from beyond the arc. It doesn't matter if he's continuously asked to guard bigger frontcourt players from the center position. 

    Horford does it, and he does it well. 

15. DeMarcus Cousins

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    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 25

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.3 blocks, 23.0 PER

    "I've been playing like s---, man," DeMarcus Cousins told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst after his uninspired play during the Sacramento Kings' recent road trip. "That is our problem. It is me. I've been playing like absolute s---."

    Was he accurate?

    Well, in a pair of road losses against the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, the 25-year-old center averaged just 13.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks while shooting 25 percent from the field. That may be worth a few expletives. 

    Fortunately, this may be an aberration.

    Though Cousins won't use it as an excuse, he's been dealing with some lingering back pain that has clearly affected his mobility, leaving him lagging behind plenty of transition plays and taking away some of the burst that he typically uses when working out of the post. 

    The big man has still been the NBA's most dominant center during the first quarter of the 2015-16 campaign, even if he hasn't been the Boogie we saw throughout the previous season. Rest assured that he'll begin turning things around as soon as he gets healthy, and hold your breath in anticipation if he's ever allowed to serve as a distributing hub for the Kings.

14. Paul Millsap

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    Team: Atlanta Hawks

    Position: PF

    Age: 30

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.2 blocks, 23.3 PER

    Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer is more than willing to sing the praises of Paul Millsap. He did exactly that on Dec. 5, as shared by Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    He is very unique, and hopefully we appreciate him for how unique and good he is. He is a guy who does so many things on both ends of the court. I think he really is a facilitator for us. We ask our bigs to make a lot of decisions, a lot of reads. He moves the ball. He finds open teammates. He scores. Defensively he has great hands, great anticipation.

    The numbers agree. 

    Here's numberFire.com's Brett Oswalt, leaning on the site's nERD statistic that attempts to sum up a player's overall levels of efficiency and effectiveness: 

    Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry,Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin.

    What do these seven players have in common? Well, they're the only seven players with a higher nERD than Paul Millsap—ya know, that one guy for the Hawks.

    What about LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, Hassan Whiteside, Kevin Love and Draymond Green? What do they have in common? 

    It might be hard to believe but each of them have a nERD score lower than that of Millsap's.

    If you're looking for the one player who has managed to become more and more like a Swiss army knife each season, you've found him. 

13. James Harden

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: SG

    Age: 26

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 28.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 24.5 PER

    If you're analyzing James Harden from a purely numeric standpoint, he'd rank much higher. It's incredibly difficult to average more than 28 points, six rebounds and six assists per game, which is why only eight different qualified players in NBA history have ever done so. 

    The Houston Rockets' net rating improves by 5.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court, thanks to a ridiculous offensive boost that makes up for the negative work on the defensive end. According to my total points added metric (explained in full throughout this article), Harden is actually on track to finish behind only Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard at the end of the 2015-16 campaign. 

    But all of that ignores the intangibles, and those aren't exactly great for this bearded shooting guard.

    His apathy was contagious at the beginning of the season, helping lead to the firing of former head coach Kevin McHale. He still refuses to commit on the defensive end, and that often leaves the Rockets in momentum-killing four-on-five situations. Plus, Harden sometimes tends to shoot his team out of the game when his stroke is awry, showing no conscience as he fires up one ill-fated attempt after another. 

    As good as Harden could be with his shot-creating ability and knack for drawing whistles, he could be even better if he realized that not every attempt from the field is a good one. At some point, it has to be concerning that he's firing up 8.5 three-point tries per contest despite knocking down only 30.1 percent of them. 

    By the end of the year, Harden should reassert himself as a top-10 player. He does so on many nights already, though he's had trouble stringing those performances together. He could even get back into the MVP race after figuring so prominently into last year's individual competition.

    But right now, he's been his own worst enemy far too often, and that knocks him well down the early rankings. 

12. Jimmy Butler

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    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Position: SG

    Age: 26

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 20.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.8 blocks, 20.4 PER

    The Chicago Bulls now belong to Jimmy Butler. 

    That should've been abundantly clear during his breakout campaign in 2014-15, but he's cementing his spot as the Windy City alpha dog one year later. Even though Derrick Rose still has a usage rate far too high for such an inefficient point guard, Butler has asserted himself as the top option on both ends of the floor. 

    Offensively, the shooting guard has shown that last year's numbers were no fluke. Once more averaging over 20 points per game, he hasn't seen his efficiency levels slip all that significantly, balancing his slightly lower field-goal percentage with a confident perimeter stroke and an even better ability to work his way to the charity stripe. Additionally, he's averaging more assists per 36 minutes than ever before and is on pace to post a career-best 15.3 assist percentage

    But what's truly allowed Butler to confirm his status as a superstar is his defensive ability. 

    Last year, he didn't have enough energy to continue taking on the toughest assignments every night. When he did, he struggled a bit under the weight of such enormous responsibilities. However, the second year of his tenure as the Bulls' unquestioned leader has seen him return to his spot as a Defensive Player of the Year contender: 


    Thus far, Butler's DRPM puts him behind only Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the 2, per ESPN.com's database. Last year, he sank all the way down to the No. 19 spot at his position, landing between Wayne Ellington and Anthony Morrow.

11. Chris Paul

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PG

    Age: 30

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 16.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.0 blocks, 22.4 PER

    Let's begin with the one flaw. 

    Chris Paul has yet to reject a single shot during the 2015-16 season. He's never exactly been a shot-blocking machine, but he's managed to send away at least three attempts during each season of his spectacular NBA career. 

    Though 76 players have taken the court at some point this year and have yet to record their first block, only Bojan Bogdanovic, Jose Calderon and Isaiah Thomas have logged more minutes than Paul. In fact, if Paul were to rest for the remaining portion of the season, he'd become the 95th player in NBA history to play more than 500 minutes without recording a block for the entire campaign. 

    There's no telling what will happen, because a fluke play is bound to happen at some point. After all, Paul did manage to reject attempts from Eric Bledsoe, Trey Burke, Nick Calathes, Darren Collison, Tim Duncan, Jeff Green, Kirk Hinrich, Brandon Knight, Robin Lopez, Nikola Mirotic, Tony Parker, Sebastian Telfair, Zach Randolph, Kemba Walker and Tyler Zeller during the 2014-15 season.

    But even if he doesn't, the rest of his statistical profile looks pretty darn good. It's only if you judge Paul against the younger version of himself that he loses some of his luster, since he's still producing offense at an elite level and keeping his turnover figures in check. 

    As the season progresses, he should begin to get more accurate from the field and from beyond the arc. He'll also settle in on the defensive end, boosted by increased levels of health and stamina. 

    Paul hasn't quite been himself yet, but he's already emerged as one of the league's premier point guards once again. 

10. Blake Griffin

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PF

    Age: 26

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 24.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.6 blocks, 26.1 PER

    What can't Blake Griffin do?

    If your answer is rebound at a high level, you are no longer correct.

    This season, he's put an end to the unfortunate trend that saw his numbers decline consistently since they peaked at 12.1 during his rookie season. Part of this is an unwillingness to concede every uncontested opportunity to DeAndre Jordan, but he's also attacking the glass with more fervor, trying to end possessions and begin fast-break chances without relying on outlet passes. 

    If your answer is defend competently, that's also no longer true. 

    Despite his short arms, Griffin has asserted himself as a competent defender for a few seasons now, and his positioning is increasingly beneficial to the Los Angeles Clippers. Though he still struggles closing out against rangy opponents, he's holding his own on the interior unless he's isolated in a post-up situation. Griffin will never be a defensive ace, but he's no longer a glaring liability. 

    And all the while, he's continued to be an increasingly adept scorer, morphing from a dunking machine into a well-rounded offensive powerhouse who can drain one mid-range jumper after another. He's also one of the best distributors at his position, helping LAC overcome its lack of capable ball-handlers by serving as an offensive hub for head coach Doc Rivers. 

9. Draymond Green

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: PF

    Age: 25

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 13.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.4 blocks, 18.1 PER

    No, Draymond Green is not overrated because he scores only 13 points per contest. There's far more that goes into the game of basketball than that one particular stat, especially because it's arguably the easiest to replace by inserting a lesser player into the lineup. Points may win games, but helping teammates generate them can be just as important as actually doing the scoring. 

    Similarly, Green isn't overrated because his player efficiency rating stands at "just" 18.1. Considering the stat often overlooks actual defensive ability and rewards volume shooters, it stands to reason that this power forward's mark is lower than it should be.

    Behind Stephen Curry, Green is the second-most valuable player on the undefeated Golden State Warriors. His passing makes everything work in lineups that feature him at either the 4 or the 5, and the league as a whole still has yet to figure out how in the world it can stop plays that begin with him setting a screen for the reigning MVP. 

    Basically, he's become everything you want in a basketball player.

    Entirely unselfish, he's willing to take the looks he's given and nothing more while trying to do all the things that so often get overlooked. If the Dubs need a key defensive stop, it's usually Green who gets it. If they need an assist, they're turning to this man. If they need a hard screen, guess who's setting it? 

    Golden State's net rating jumps by 23.4 points per 100 possessions when Curry is on the floor, but it also rockets up by 21.2 when Green is present. The next highest level of impact comes from Andre Iguodala, who boosts the net rating by 13.6. Along the same lines, ESPN's Real Plus/Minus leaves Green trailing only Curry, Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. 

    He's unquestionably a superstar, and the primary question about his value should no longer revolve around whether he makes the All-Star squad in the Western Conference. Whether he finds himself as a prominent member of most MVP ballots is the better inquiry. 

    Right now, Basketball-Reference's MVP Award Tracker, which "ranks candidates based on a model built using previous voting results," has Green finishing at No. 4, behind just Curry, Westbrook and Leonard.

    He's that good. More importantly, he's that valuable. 

8. Paul George

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Indiana Pacers

    Position: SF/PF

    Age: 25

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 27.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 26.4 PER

    Don't click out of this article in anger quite yet. 

    Paul George has legitimately performed like one of the NBA's five best players during the early portion of the 2015-16 season, thriving on defense and leading the offensive charge for the Indiana Pacers with his shot-creating ability and torrid pace from the perimeter. But he's checking in at No. 8 because it's tough to believe this is 100 percent sustainable, and history does have an impact on these rankings. 

    Does anyone really expect the three-point shooting to continue?

    George took 6.3 attempts per game during his last full season, and he made them at a 36.4 percent clip. The former was a career high at the time, and the latter was only slightly behind his best mark of 38.5 percent. This season, he's taking 7.7 treys per contest and knocking down 44.8 percent of them.

    But even if George begins misfiring a bit more, he's still going to be a fantastic two-way player for the dangerous Pacers. He's taken to his new role as a combo forward quite nicely, attacking the boards and remaining willing to feed his teammates on a regular basis. Defensively, he's also fared quite well at both positions. 

    Again, don't view this as disrespect. Earning a top-10 spot in the individual rankings is an incredible achievement, particularly for a player coming off a season in which he was only able to dress out six times at the end of the year. 

    On top of that, it's not like there's much separation between George and the next few players in the rankings. Everything is clumped together this early in the campaign, to the point that a short stretch of hot or cold outings can send someone significantly up or down in the hierarchy. 

7. Kyle Lowry

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    Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Toronto Raptors

    Position: PG

    Age: 29

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 22.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.6 steals, 0.6 blocks, 25.9 PER

    If you were forced to fill out an MVP ballot at this early stage of the season, Kyle Lowry would deserve some serious consideration for one of the five spots. He shouldn't win, but the impact he's had for the Toronto Raptors on both ends of the court is sensational. 

    All the offseason work he put in while attempting to change his overall physique has paid large dividends. Lowry isn't wearing out at the end of games, and his first step is noticeably quicker as he attempts to drive to the hoop. That hasn't just helped him finish around the basket, but the mere threat of his penetration has also opened up space for jumpers in catch-and-shoot situations. 

    Lowry has been a complete player on the offensive end, carrying the Raptors for significant stretches by virtue of his well-rounded scoring ability and knack for involving his teammates at the right moments. But he's also been an excellent defender, which shouldn't shock anyone who's watched him for the last few seasons.

    When this point guard has been on the bench, Toronto has been outscored by 8.9 points per 100 possessions. When he plays, however, the Raptors have done the outscoring, this time to the tune of an 8.2 net rating. 

    That, in a nutshell, is an MVP-caliber impact. 

6. Kevin Durant

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: SF

    Age: 27

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 27.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.4 blocks, 30.4 PER

    Kevin Durant may be having his best offensive season yet. 

    While averaging 27.9 points and 3.8 assists, he's knocking down a career-best 52.9 percent of his field-goal attempts, a career-best 45.7 percent of his three-point attempts and 88.9 percent of his free-throw tries. His turnovers are under control, and he's doing a fantastic job picking when to cede possessions to Russell Westbrook. All of this factors into his 30.4 PER—a mark earned despite his usage rate remaining below 30. 

    So, why isn't Durant ranked higher? Before his injury-plagued 2014-15 campaign, he was consistently involved in any conversation about the best basketball player in the world, and the argument that he's now playing even better offensively isn't difficult to make. 

    The answer is simple: Defense. 

    Though Durant's DBPM of 0.4 is better than the minus-0.2 he produced last year, it's still the No. 4 mark of his career, trailing the ones earned from 2012 through 2014. And that metric looks at him more favorably than ESPN.com's DRPM, which indicates that the one-time MVP has a negative impact on the less-glamorous end.

    Whichever stat you subscribe to, it has to be a bit concerning that Durant has been a one-way star this year. 

5. Kawhi Leonard

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    Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Position: SF

    Age: 24

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 21.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.2 blocks, 26.6 PER

    As Michael C. Wright broke down for ESPN.com, there's plenty that has gone into Kawhi Leonard's rise to superstardom, but his ability to create off the dribble and dominate spot-up situations has been the biggest factor: 

    Prior to last season, Leonard rarely got all the way to the basket and instead relied on midrange pull-up jumpers, turnarounds and right-hand hooks in the post. He has since added more to his game, most notably an improved 3-point shot and the ability to create shots off the dribble. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard is currently the league’s best offensive spot-up player. The Spurs place Leonard in spot-up situations, which end in either a catch-and-shoot or catch-and-drive play, 25.2 percent of the time. Leonard has managed to score 125 points in those situations this season, which ranks No. 1 in the league.

    It's almost unfair that last year's Defensive Player of the Year is now shooting a league-best 50 percent from beyond the arc. That will probably regress significantly, but Leonard doesn't even need to score 20 points per game in order to be one of the NBA's most impactful players. 

    He's still that good on the defensive end. There's been virtually no decline after last season's point-preventing heroics, even if Tim Duncan has emerged as the best stopper on the San Antonio Spurs roster—by only a small margin, mind you. 

    At this point, there should be no doubt that Leonard has become a ridiculously complete player. 

4. Anthony Davis

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 22

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 23.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.7 blocks, 25.6 PER

    Anthony Davis hasn't quite torn apart the NBA during his fourth go-round as a professional. He's had a bit of trouble adjusting to head coach Alvin Gentry's new offense, and the hodgepodge of mismatched players surrounding him on the injury-ravaged New Orleans Pelicans has made it inordinately difficult to win games on a consistent basis. 

    But Davis has still been damn good. 

    What follows is the complete list of qualified NBA players who have averaged at least 23 points, 10 rebounds, one assist, one steal and two blocks, as the unibrowed big man is on pace to do in 2015-16: 

    • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (five times)
    • Elton Brand
    • Anthony Davis (once prior to this season)
    • Patrick Ewing (twice)
    • Kevin Garnett
    • Elvin Hayes (twice)
    • Moses Malone
    • Bob McAdoo (three times)
    • Alonzo Mourning
    • Hakeem Olajuwon (eight times)
    • David Robinson (seven times)

    Among the players on that list, only Elton Brand, Davis and Kevin Garnett aren't members of the Hall of Fame, and the latter is a lock to get there once he's retired. So clearly, Davis is still having a special season despite its failure to live up to some of the most lofty expectations. 

    He's only going to keep getting better. 

3. LeBron James

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Position: SF/PF

    Age: 30

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 26.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, 26.9 PER

    This isn't just about LeBron James' reputation. 

    It's not about him looking reinvigorated on the defensive end, on pace to post his best DBPM of the last three seasons. Nor is it about his ability to compensate for his inaccurate perimeter stroke by making a huge impact inside the arc, as a distributor and on the glass. 

    James just means everything to the Cleveland Cavaliers while Kyrie Irving is still rehabbing his knee. 

    When he's on the bench—whether during a game or when he's taking a night off—the team gets outscored by a ridiculous 15.9 points per 100 possessions. To put that in perspective, the Philadelphia 76ers are the only team in the Association with a net rating on the wrong end of minus-10, and their mark stands at minus-12.6 after their first 22 games. 

    But when James plays, the Cavaliers score 111.6 points per 100 possessions and allow just 100.4 over the same stretch. In that situation, they have a net rating of 11.2. 

    More perspective: The San Antonio Spurs (12.6 net rating) and Golden State Warriors (14.7) are the only two squads in double digits. Third in the NBA are the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are outscoring opponents by "only" seven points per 100 possessions. 

    In other words, James transforms the Cavaliers from being far worse than the 1-21 Sixers to a squad comparable with the Spurs.  

2. Russell Westbrook

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: PG

    Age: 27

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 26.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 9.9 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, 31.4 PER

    Let's turn to total points allowed (TPA). By prorating current numbers to account for the entirety of the 2015-16 campaign, we can estimate how many more points a player contributes on both ends of the court than a league-average player would in the same situation. 

    Using data heading into games on Dec. 9, here's the top five: 

    1. Stephen Curry, 745.2 TPA
    2. Russell Westbrook, 689.82
    3. Kyle Lowry, 567.51
    4. Paul George, 459.9
    5. LeBron James, 457.05

    That means Westbrook is on track to add 122.31 more points than anyone in the Association not named Stephen Curry, and that can be further interpreted in one of two ways. 

    First, we could say that the gap between Westbrook and Kyle Lowry is larger than the total points added of all but 38 players throughout the NBA. Second, we could say that Westbrook has basically been Lowry plus Dwyane Wade (117.26 TPA) or Hassan Whiteside (118.17), both of whom will figure prominently into the All-Star conversation. 

    In even simpler terms, Westbrook has been kind of dominant. 

1. Stephen Curry

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: PG

    Age: 27

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 32.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.1 blocks, 34.7 PER

    Is there any doubt at this point? 

    Even if we overlook Stephen Curry's magnificent shooting ability, he'd stand out for his above-average play on the defensive end—ESPN's DRPM has him as the seventh-best point-preventing 1-guard this year—who can crash the boards consistently, convert in the restricted area at a ridiculous rate and assert himself as one of the league's best distributors. 

    Don't be fooled by Curry's relatively lackluster average of six dimes per contest. When you factor in secondary assists (he leads the league by a significant margin) and free-throw assists (he's tied for 10th), his adjusted assists (9.2) leave him behind only Rajon Rondo (14), Russell Westbrook (12.3), Chris Paul (10.6), John Wall (10.5), Tyreke Evans (10.5) and Ricky Rubio (10.4). 

    And, of course, we can't discount his ability to rip the twine from ungodly distances. 

    Curry isn't just averaging 32.2 points per game. He's doing so while knocking down 52.9 percent of his shots from the field, a career-best 46.3 percent of his three-point attempts and 90.1 percent of his tries from the charity stripe. Even more impressively, he's taking 11.2 treys during the average contest and still remains on pace to join the exclusive 50/40/90 club. 

    It all adds up to a league-leading true shooting percentage of 70. Artis Gilmore, Tyson Chandler and Ryan Hollins are the only players who have maintained a 70 true shooting percentage, and they combined to take just eight triples. Even more significantly, they averaged a combined 32.1 points per game on 17.1 field-goal attempts per contest.

    Curry is at 32.2 on 20.3. 

    We're no longer looking at the best shooter in NBA history. He's secured that with plenty of room to spare, and he's now moving on to bigger and better things. 

    For example: Curry is on pace to have the best offensive season ever, and it's not even close. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com or my own databases and are current heading into Dec. 9's games. 

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.


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