The season is coming down to the finish, and there are plenty of notable playoff races still in the balance. Before focusing on the teams in the playoff race, let’s look at who have been the best players in the league so far this season. Like the playoff race, no one who isn’t currently on this list is likely to force their way in in the remaining weeks of the regular season, although there could be some slight shifts in the rankings.
These rankings aren’t an attempt to determine who will win the MVP in the real world, but rather a recognition of players who have been playing spectacular basketball. Minutes played matter, but team success doesn’t, except where it may show a strength or weakness in the player’s game that isn’t otherwise evident. So here goes – my picks for the 10 best players in the league this season.
10. DeMarcus Cousins
When I set out to build these rankings, this was one guy I was sure wouldn’t make the cut. Cousins has become the poster child for big numbers with no substance in his short time in the league, and I assumed that this year was no different. Sure, the numbers are even more spectacular than they’ve ever been – he’s averaging 22 points, nearly 12 rebounds, and over a block and a steal per game in just 32 minutes a night – but had he really done anything to help his team?
The short answer is yes.
With Cousins on the court this season the Kings have nearly played even with their opponents, while they are consistently outplayed with him on the bench. He has missed 11 games thus far in the season. Sacramento’s record in those games? 0-11. They don’t exactly light the world on fire when he plays, but when he doesn’t – yikes. If the team can build around him with some high character guys who can shoot and/or play defense, this might one day be a scary team, thanks to Cousins’ increasingly strong play.
Curry has somehow managed to fly a bit under the radar this season. How the hell that has happened I will never know. After the playoffs last season it seemed that he could be joining the league’s elite – when he actually did it this season, his team’s inability to hold on to a top 4 spot in the West (no small task in a conference in which a 45-win team will likely be on the outside looking in) limited the talk of his skill and production.
Aside from an uncharacteristically low 3 point percentage (he’s down to a still-stellar 41.4%), every indicator points up. He is assisting at a higher rate, scoring more often, and generally playing great basketball. His turnovers are up, but altogether this has been a great season worthy of the All-Star selection and of greater recognition.
John Hollinger stated more than once in his writing days that the two best predictors of longevity in the NBA were height and shooting ability. It therefore comes as no surprise that Dirk is still rolling at age 35. Everyone’s favorite giant German is hitting over half of his long twos for the fourth straight year, and is just shy of the 50-40-90 shooting percentage line. His 24 points per 36 minutes are pacing the Mavericks to a likely playoff spot in a very tough conference, and the team has relied heavily on his scoring out of the high post just as it has for the past 10 years. He’ll presumably have to slow down eventually, but it hasn’t happened this season.
The Knicks have floundered this season, with injuries, arrests, and general ineptitude crushing the team’s chances of a playoff berth. However, as the world burns around him Melo has put together his best season to date, hitting above 40% of his threes and generally doing all of the Melo things we’ve come to know – scoring, bending the defense, and rebounding like a big.
He still can’t defend. He still isn’t LeBron. He is one of the top 10 players in the league this season.
If you think that means that the Knicks should be in the playoffs, consider that Tyson Chandler has missed considerable time, the starting point guard has been arrested, the best non-Melo wing was on the trading block for half the season, and the team generally has no idea what to do on defense. Suddenly Anthony looks a lot better. He really is very good folks, there’s just no support around him at the moment. Maybe the Zen master changes that, maybe not, but nothing should tarnish the finest season Anthony has put together as a pro.
6. Kevin Love
Point differential can only take you so far. Love has led his team beautifully all season, and the various injuries and general bad luck surrounding him have served to drown it all out. The results are there, if you care to look at them; on another team, in another time, this would have been an all-time season for any Minnesota player. Instead Love is swept under the rug, derided for his inability to make the playoffs even when the numbers say the Wolves have just been very unlucky.
It takes more than one player to make the playoffs, no matter who that player happens to be, and the competition in the West is going to leave more than one elite player out of the playoffs this season. And he is elite. You won’t find a more modern combination of skills in a big: Love shoots nearly 40% on threes, he rebounds like a beast, and he can start a fastbreak with full court laser outlets. He won’t ever be a top-tier defender, but he’s managed to shore that up in the last couple of seasons as well. Just like with Melo, Minnesota’s record just hides how brilliant Love has been.
5. Joakim Noah
He passes like a wing, defends like a mad man, and generally channels his non-stop energy into keeping this team relevant night after night. This team shouldn’t be here, not after the talent that’s been lost, and Noah and Thibs deserve a ton of credit for holding onto a top 4 seed.
The offense has been retooled around Noah’s incredible passing, which he will use out of the high post or off the bounce to open holes in the defense even when there’s no one else on the floor to fear. The 5.0 assists per game he is averaging back that up, but it’s harder to get a sense of the other improvements he has made to an already All-Star worthy skill set, such as adding a respectable midrange shot and improved off-the-dribble game. Injuries are always a concern when a player has had the kind of foot problems Noah has suffered in his career, but his play this season has made the Bulls’ future a little clearer even as the uncertainty grows around Rose. Noah has even managed to generate a bit of free-agency buzz from Melo. That speaks loudly to the respect he gets within the league for his intensity and talent.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. Davis to the top of the NBA. The Brow has been incredible all year, and he just gets better as the season goes. This time next year he could easily be challenging one of the guys in the top 3 of this list if his progress continues. Davis is already a respectable shooter anywhere inside the arc, hitting 38% of his long twos to keep defenses honest and absolutely killing it at the rim, where he converts over 70% of his attempts – all while averaging a 20 and 10. Adding range out to the 3 point line is a definite possibility, and it would add to the growing offensive lethality he already possesses.
The on-off numbers aren’t quite as stellar as the raw stats, especially on defense, but that will all come in time. He’s very close to netting 3 blocks and 1.5 steals per game, and players who can do that usually end up figuring out how to translate their timing and athleticism into strong team defense. If the Pelicans hadn’t suffered so many injuries this season Davis could easily have dragged them into playoff contention. As he progresses and the team around him improves look for them to be a very strong team for at least the next few seasons.
A good way to quiet the haters is to win without the cushy setups from your all-world teammate. Mission accomplished. Sure, all he does is dunk, if you want to ignore the times when the offense is running through him either at the high post or on the block. This guy can straight ball, and the criticisms now are getting very picky – his defense is about as good as it gets for a short-armed, average-height power forward who has to carry this kind of offensive load, and there’s not too much else to gripe about.
He scores from everywhere effectively, and if he gets to the rim you might as well just give up. He dishes 3.7 assists per game, averages nearly 25 points and 10 rebounds, and can handle either a primary role or a secondary one without skipping a beat. The Clippers are legitimate contenders, even with Chris Paul missing some time, the lack of reliable bigs, and the wing rotation being decimated, all thanks to Griffin’s excellent play.
2. LeBron James
Yep. For the first time in several years James has failed to be the best player in the league across the regular season. Surprisingly, it’s not really because he has dropped off. His defense is a little less intense than in previous seasons, and he has allowed others, particularly Dwyane Wade, to handle some of the responsibilities he has been stuck with throughout his career. Wade’s resurgent regular season and Miami’s bigger lineups account for James’ reduction in assists and rebounding, respectively.
What he has done is increase his already-high shooting percentage to 57%, ranking him ahead of all but the most imposing centers in this category, and continue to polish his scoring from various areas, be it the post or the three point line, all in preparation for the upcoming playoff run. It’s likely that James is still the best player in the league by a noticeable margin, and that he has just been coasting through a regular season that was a foregone conclusion. We’re only talking about the regular season here though, so he lands at number 2.
1. Kevin Durant
The artist formerly known as the Slim Reaper is the most deadly scorer on the planet. Fact: LeBron is on the planet. Durant’s raw skill and athleticism are ridiculous, and there’s no place on the floor that he can be stopped. You just have to try to keep him off the ball as long as possible and pray. It’s amazing that anyone could catch James during his prime, but it has happened, at least in the regular season.
I could rattle off some percentages or the state of his team as I’ve done with others on this list, but just watch this instead, and take a look at how his teammates react after Durant hits his shot compared to his reaction. He looks like he’s going to brush his teeth or something – he’s just accepted that these are going to fall, and is waiting for his chance to shoot the next one. Unreal.
The toughest cut, Paul has played spectacularly, but hasn’t logged enough minutes to bump out any of the top 10. Between injuries and his light nightly workload he is nearly 200 minutes behind Cousins in playing time (of those in the top 10, Cousins has logged the fewest total minutes), who himself has missed several games, and the production just hasn’t been enough to offset it and for Paul to crack the list.
Jefferson’s play in Charlotte has the Bobcats locked into a playoff spot for the first time in a few years. His post scoring is as deadly as ever, and he has done wonders for the watchability of this squad in general. Mediocre defense keeps him out of the top 10, but Big Al has been as good as ever.
The arrival of Howard led to an adjustment period for the team as they settled into a lineup and style that suited everyone. Dwight was still playing his way back into form at the beginning of the year as well, and these guys have looked downright terrifying at times late in the season. They are going to need more time to gel in the next season or two, and when they do (barring injury) the Rockets are going to have a great chance to make it out of the West and potentially play for a title.