Superstar Rankings: Identifying the NBA's 10 Best so Far

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterDecember 19, 2015

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, right, celebrates on the bench with forward Draymond Green, center, and forward Harrison Barnes during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. The Warriors won 111-77. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

What makes an NBA superstar?

Is it explosive scoring? Stuffing the stat sheet in more ways than one? 

How about flashy plays, be they thunderous dunks, killer crossovers or circus shots? Or uncanny control over everything that happens on the court, jaw-dropping or otherwise? Perhaps it's about hearkening back through basketball history—or giving fans and observers cause to relitigate the past.

Maybe superstardom is contingent on celebrity crossover appeal, the force of a personality, the glint (and marketability) of a smile. Or is it based on how much others—insiders and outsiders alike—clamor after a piece of a particular player?

Certainly, winning has something to do with it. The game's greatest players have all been tremendously talented in their own right, but they have reached that hallowed upper echelon by climbing a stairway of team success.

In truth, all of these factors can and do play a part in placing a gifted baller alongside the biggest and brightest the game has to offer. For our purposes, we've picked out and ordered the top 10 superstars based on individual production and impact on team success.

Anthony Davis, John Wall, Chris Paul, Andre Drummond, Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler all garnered serious consideration. But with so much talent across the Association, and some of the more gifted clubs underperforming, there's only so much room on this list for the creme de la creme. 

10. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Green hardly fits the traditional mold of a superstar.

He doesn't dominate games with his scoring exploits. In fact, Green put up 20 points or more just 16 times through his first 266 NBA games, though six of those instances have come this season.

What makes Green a superstar—beyond the five-year, $82 million deal he signed this summer—is the way he glues the one-loss Warriors together, both on and off the floor.

He leads the defending champions in rebounds (8.8), assists (7.1) and combined blocks and steals (2.8), with improved shooting percentages (45.9 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from three) and the same brand of suffocating defense to boot.

Moreover, it's Green's skill, versatility (a league-high four triple-doubles) and tenacity from end to end that unlock the small-ball "Uh-Oh Lineup" that's blistered the rest of the league by nearly 70 points per 100 possessions in 2014-15, per NBA.com.

Green's super-social, rambunctious personality has had plenty to do with Golden State's success as well, as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding noted: "But it's no gag how important Green's place is on this team. In a group without cliques, he's the main connector—and he backs it up with basketball skills and what [general manager Bob] Myers calls a freakish 'hatred of losing.'"

The fact that Green is the second-most important player on the NBA's best team speaks volumes of his stature within the league as a whole. If Stephen Curry is "this generation's [Michael] Jordan," as Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd told the San Francisco Chronicle's Rusty Simmons, Green qualifies as the new Scottie Pippen, a jack-of-all-trades sidekick to the game's pre-eminent player.  

9. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Superstardom is defined, in part, by supply and demand. That is, the types of players with the singular talent to elevate an entire team are in exceedingly short supply and, thus, in astronomically high demand among those without such tentpoles.

By that measure, Boogie belongs on this list. He's long been the subject of trade rumors, so it was no surprise to see his name pop up in the league's latest round of hearsay. The Kings, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls have already been involved in reports fromSheridanHoops suggesting that a Cousins trade may be in the works.

Chances are, if Boogie were truly on the block, there would be many more teams than those trying to make Vlade Divac's hotline bling.

And for good reason. Cousins is averaging a career-high 25.2 points per game, and though his overall field-goal percentage has dipped to a personal-worst 42 percent, he's fashioned himself into a respectable three-point shooter (30.1 percent on 4.1 long-range attempts per game).

The Kings are in no hurry to part ways with their All-Star center, nor should they be. If not for Cousins' injuries and suspensions, Sacramento might be in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. The team won just 10 of its first 25 games in 2015-16 but went a respectable 9-8 over that span with Boogie in the lineup.

8. James Harden, Houston Rockets

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Harden has come a long way since his days as the Oklahoma City Thunder's Sixth Man of the Year.

Last season, he finished second in MVP voting among media members and first among his peers while piloting the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals. Since then, he's bolstered his superstardom credentials with all the trappings of fame and fortune.

Signing a $200 million shoe deal with Adidas. Partying around the town, TMZ cameras at the ready. Dating a Kardashian. Disturbing the peace for his birthday.

And, of course, feuding with a high-profile teammate—in this case, Dwight Howard.

Harden's doing plenty on the court to boost his profile, as well. He's averaging career highs in points (28.9), free-throw attempts (10.9), rebounds (6.2) and steals (1.9) while pacing the Association in minutes (38.4). Statistically speaking, Harden's never shouldered a bigger burden than he has so far this season, despite (because of?) having Ty Lawson on his side.

Why, then, isn't Harden higher on this list? The same reason Cousins sits below him and Davis didn't make the cut: wins or, rather, a lack thereof. The cream of the crop should do more than keep its clubs afloat, as Harden has with the 13-14 Rockets.

However, that Houston's hanging around the playoff picture out West, despite all the internal turmoil, is a testament to Harden's otherworldly ability to be an offense unto himself.

7. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

With Paul showing signs of decline, Griffin has emerged as the Clippers' best all-around player.

And he's done it, ironically enough, by making his game more like Paul's. 

For one, Griffin has emerged as one of the game's most reliable mid-range shooters. According to NBA.com, he's shooting a solid 40.6 percent on a league-high 6.2 attempts in the 15-19 foot range.

He's also registering assists on more Clippers field goals (27.9 percent) and turning the ball over less frequently (9.9 percent) than he ever has, per Basketball-Reference.com.

The overall production is still there, as Griffin's season-long line (23.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists) suggests. So, too, is his stuffing of basketballs through hoops into the faces of his foes.

For all the bells and whistles Griffin has added to his game over the years, the foundation of his superstardom—his flippant defiance of the laws of gravity, his ability to amaze and fill highlight reels—remains intact.

6. Paul George, Indiana Pacers

Dec 16, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) stretches before the game against the Dallas Mavericks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

George was well on his way to superstardom before his leg snapped during a Team USA scrimmage in the summer of 2014. If his early success this season is any indication, he would've been back among the league's elite had the Pacers stood pat as a hulking, grind-it-out operation.

But Indiana's shift toward a smaller lineup and a new, George-centric paradigm has been a boon to the Palmdale, California, native's burgeoning all-around game.

And as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding noted, George had to make adjustments on his part as well: "If George, deep down, felt entitled to coming back his way, though, he never would've been able to do what he has been doing in the Pacers' new offense. He had to be humble enough to form a new vision for himself, one that others saw for him...and saw being best for his team."

George's career highs in points (26.2), rebounds (7.8), assists (4.1) and three-point percentage (42.5 percent) are all indicators of how well small ball works for him. And the fact that the Pacers went 15-9 through their first 24 games, with top-10 efforts on both ends of the floor, per NBA.com, speaks to how well playing to George's strengths suits the squad that Larry Bird has assembled in the Circle City.

Though there are many ways to identify superstardom, few are more succinct than captaining a winning outfit fashioned in your image. By that measure, George belongs with the best. 

5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Dec 14, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) grabs a rebound during the first half against the Utah Jazz at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Like DJ Khaled before him, all Leonard does is win, win, win no matter what. In his first four years, he won two Western Conference titles, an NBA championship, a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year award.

Now that money (he signed a $94 million deal this past summer) and injuries are off his mind, Leonard has morphed into the full-time two-way menace that his past postseason successes portended.

He's officially the fulcrum of the Spurs offense. He leads the team in points (21.0 per game) and field-goal attempts (15.3), paces the entire league in three-point percentage (49.5 percent) and has posted personal-bests in rebounds (7.4) and assists (2.7).

"I think he's very comfortable with what his role is and what his position is now," Tim Duncan said of Leonard to ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. "So you see him doing that, and not asking for permission anymore, just kind of going and doing it."

Leonard's growth into a confident superstar is the product of the tireless work ethic that the best of the best all share. As head coach Gregg Popovich recalled to Wright:

"Lots of times, I've got to get on those guys," Popovich said, pointing toward the offices of the assistants. "I'll say, 'We've got a game tonight' or 'Hey, he's been here long enough. Get him the hell out of here.' Then, he'll leave. It's a you've-got-to-kick-him-out-of-the-gym sort of thing. And then you see it carry over into the games. When something doesn't work, it bothers him, and he goes back to work on it the next day. That's work ethic."

All those hours of sweat equity have helped Leonard become something that true superstars are: consistently excellent. Through his first 25 games of the 2015-16 season, Leonard scored 20 points or more 16 times and ripped down at least five rebounds on 21 occasions.

4. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

Dec 17, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) reacts in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When you've climbed as high up the league's ladder as a former MVP like Durant has, historical comparisons are bound to follow.

George Gervin, a slender four-time scoring champ who's in the Hall of Fame, sees some similarities in their games, as he noted in an interview with USA Today.

On Thursday, Durant put himself on the same visual plane as Julius Erving with a twisting, behind-the-backboard layup that evoked one of Dr. J's most famous moments:

Prior to that spectacular move—and the 104-100 Oklahoma City loss to Cleveland during which it occurred—LeBron James suggested there is no comparison to Durant in NBA history.

"He's a 7-footer with 6-foot ball-handling skills and a jump shot," James said, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "And athleticism. It's never been done in our league. Never had a guy that's 7 foot, can jump like that, can shoot like that, handle the ball like that. So it sets him apart."

Technically, Durant is listed at 6'9", but the point remains the same. He could distinguish himself from Dirk Nowitzki with a second 50-40-90 season—Durant shot 52.7 percent from the field, 43.1 percent from three and 89.2 percent from the line through his first 20 games—and already has four scoring titles and, well, the physical prowess to look like Dr. J.

More remarkable still: He's doing all this after missing 55 games in 2014-15 on account of persistent foot problems.

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 17: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder ;is seen during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 17, 2015 at The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

As great as Durant continues to be, Westbrook might have edged past his longtime teammate in terms of overall impact. At the very least, the two now see eye-to-eye, despite an official six-inch difference in height.

Beyond the basic box-score stats—25.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, career highs in field-goal percentage (46.5 percent) and assists (9.4 per game)—Westbrook's productivity in OKC is practically unprecedented, as Michael Pina detailed for Sports on Earth:

No player in history has ever recorded a full-season PER and usage percentage as high as Westbrook's right now (both are second in the league). He leads the NBA in assist percentage (a crazy 49.1) and steals. His True Shooting percentage, rebound rate and Win Shares/48 minutes are all a career high, and the only person Westbrook trails in Real Plus-Minus and RPM Wins is Curry.

In other words, Westbrook has been Westbrook, but to an even greater degree. That has as much to do with his superstardom as does the controversy that his workload inspires. His drive to do more inevitably leaves less for a generational talent such as Durant—not to mention all the Thunder role players who probably wouldn't mind a bite from the apple.

And Westbrook's aggression isn't without its pitfalls. He leads the league in turnovers (4.7 per game) and, according to NBA Miner, has racked up the ninth-most offensive fouls.

But, as Pina concluded, the strengths in Westbrook's game far outweigh the dangers inherent in handing him the ball:

His team wins because he's on it, and, this season more than any other of his polarizing/Hall of Fame career, it's more than OK to ignore the blemishes and applaud the dominance. Westbrook is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete at the peak of his powers. Don't blink or you'll miss it.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 17: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers ;celebrates; during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on December 17, 2015 at The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

James isn't the same consistently destructive force from night to night that he was during his first stint in Cleveland and throughout his four years in Miami.

Not that he couldn't be if he so desired.

In his latest outing opposite the Thunder, James piled up 33 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists in just under 40 minutes to drag the short-handed Cavaliers to their fourth straight win and 17th in 24 tries overall in 2015-16.

The thing is, Cleveland doesn't need James to make the hardwood his domain like he would've in years past. He has a happy Kevin Love by his side and will soon have a healthy Kyrie Irving to take even more weight off his balky back.

And, frankly, it's in the best interest of the Cavs' championship hopes to limit James' workload. Just don't tell him that. As he recently told reporters, per Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes:

I'm just a player. I'm a ballplayer. I look at it like if I was hurting my team by playing big minutes then take me out. Sit me down and then it should be a conversation.

I've never in my career played high minutes and hurt my team, so I don't see why it's such big difference or a big deal now. It's just something to talk about because there's nothing else to talk to me about besides minutes.

Perhaps some questions about how James, who will turn 31 on Dec. 30, can still contribute 26.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game would be more appropriate.

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

December 16, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates during the third quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Sun 128-103. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As noted earlier, Curry's curried favor from folks around the NBA as the next Michael Jordan—and what better proof of superstardom is there than to be mentioned in the same breath as His Airness?

It's not just that Curry's lapping the field in the scoring race at 32 points per game, though that doesn't hurt. It's not just that he's on pace to shatter his own record for three-pointers in a season, though knocking down 400 in 82 games when nobody has ever hit 300 would be remarkable. And it's not just that Curry's Warriors could realistically break the single-season win mark (72) held by Jordan's 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, though that can't hurt.

What qualifies Curry as the game's brightest star is the sheer adulation his shine is attracting. He's inspired fleets of fans from coast to coast with his breathtaking exhibitions of basketball skill—and not just the ones he puts on between buzzers.

His pregame shooting and dribbling routines have become hot tickets in every town and could prompt Golden State to open its own doors to the public extra early, per the Wall Street Journal's Ben Cohen.

Curry may not exude the same cocksureness or dominate with the sort of explosive athleticism and fierce physicality that separated Jordan from his peers once upon a time. But what connects the NBA's reigning MVP to its greatest star is the fire that burns within them both.

"That man is one of the biggest competitors," Green told Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding of his teammate. "That's what makes him special—along with all the stuff you love."

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. Stats are accurate as of Dec. 18, 2015.

 

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