Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Third Best Player in the NBA

LeBron James #1.  Kevin Durant #1A.  What about the rest?  Ask five people and you might get five different answers.  After compiling the following list I was shocked at how few true superstars there are currently in the NBA.  Many former superstars are just too old or riddled with injuries to be considered a top player anymore, and many budding stars are a playoff run away from elevating their status to super stardom.

Let's start with a few big names that don't belong on this list:

Kobe Bryant

Is he done?  He tore his achilles in the playoffs last year, rushed back to the court and fractured his knee cap.  Doctors say his injury is consistent with a senior citizen.  The Lakers are a mess and will be with or without him.  We may have already seen the unceremonious end to one of the best NBA careers ever.  He is only 35 years old but he has the mileage of a 42 year old.  Even if Bryant can get himself back on the court it is unlikely he will be close to the player he was in his prime (no matter what the All Star voting says).

Derrick Rose

If he were healthy he might be the third best NBA player.  Injuries have kept him out of action the better part of two years and it will be another nine months before he'll see the court again.  Even if he can come back at full strength (again) and stay healthy, there is no telling what two knee surgeries will do to his game which is predicated on explosiveness.  He is still very young, and he's the only person not named LeBron James to have won the MVP award in the last five years, but he's a long way from being included in this discussion.

Dwyane Wade

He's closer than the previous two, but the last time we saw Wade be Wade was James' first year with Miami.  Even then it was mainly in the regular season.  Injuries have robbed his athleticism and his health is sporadic at best.  There are still glimpses of the old Wade on a good night, but those are very few and far between.  With three championships under his belt, Wade will be judged by his playoff success rather than consistent dominance in the regular season.

Here are the best of the rest in the NBA.

13.  Dwight Howard

2013-2014 season statistics (PPG: points per game, BPG: blocks, RPG: rebounds, SPG: steals)

PPG: 18.9  BPG: 1.9  RPG: 12.6

Three years ago Howard was a MVP candidate.  A back surgery and two teams later he isn't quite what he used to be.  He is still the most physically imposing center in the NBA, especially on defense, and will always rebound at a high rate.  Howard lacks polish to his offensive game but is improving as he continues to get healthier.  Poor free throw shooting will most likely exclude him from future MVP conversations.

12.  Kevin Love

PPG: 26.6  APG: 4.1  RPG: 13.2 

By numbers alone Love is one of the best players of the past five seasons.  He is a double-double machine averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds in three of his last four seasons.  His ability to score inside and beyond the three point line make him a versatile big who can space the floor.  The problem with Love is that he has played his whole career in Minnesota and failed to lead his team to the playoffs even once.  That's pretty much a deal breaker.  It will most likely be a with a new franchise that Love will reach his full potential as a star.  Perhaps the Lakers or Mavericks in 2015?

11.  Anthony Davis

PPG: 20.5  BPG: 3.0  RPG: 10.2  SPG: 1.5

His name might not be household, but his brow is beginning to be thanks to a national commercial with James Harden.  The guy is a flat out game changer with unlimited potential.  He is very young playing in only his second season, but he has already put up dominate numbers.  Davis can get it done on both sides of the court.  He is already the best shot blocker by a wide margin, he has the agility to cover perimeter bigs, he can hit jump shots and score inside.  He is a future superstar once the Pelicans improve around him and earn some televised games.  Davis needs to fill out his lanky frame, but once he does, look out.

10.  Tony Parker

PPG: 17.7  APG: 6.2

He might not have the flashy stats or highlights that many other players on this list have, but he is a consistent winner with plenty of big game experience.  Parker would have been the Finals MVP if the Heat hadn't pulled out a miracle in Game 6 last season.  He has an uncanny ability to finish drives and awkward shots when his team needs it the most.  At 31, he has watched Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili's skills diminish but he continues to enjoy his prime years even when no one notices.  He is not the best defender at his position, and he does have a tendency to be streaky, but for a must-win one game scenario, there aren't many players more valuable than Parker.  Playing in San Antonio for Greg Popovich will not make Parker a star, but he has three championships to keep him satisfied.

9.  James Harden

PPG: 24.7  APG: 5.5  RPG: 4.7  SPG: 1.5

I was skeptical when the Beard went to Houston to be the lead dog after a wildly successful sixth man role with the Thunder.  All he did was finish in the top five in scoring while leading the Rockets to a playoff appearance.  His play attracted free agent Dwight Howard and the Rockets are now poised to finish near the top of the Western Conference.  Harden is a scorer first and foremost and has trouble with turnovers and defense.  An improvement in those areas could be the difference between a nice player and one that is capable of leading a team to a championship.

8.  Blake Griffin

PPG: 24.3  APG: 3.5  RPG: 9.8

We're starting to see the potential come to fruition for Griffin.  As predicted, he would need time to develop as a truly great player, but there was no doubt he would considering his legendary work ethic.  He has improved his free throw shooting, jump shooting, and consistency this season.  An injury to Chris Paul earned him the spotlight and he did not disappoint.  Griffin averaged 30+ points as he lead the Clippers to a 12-6 mark in Paul's absence.  Everyone knows he can finish at the rim, but he is also a very skilled ball handler and passer at his size.  He also boasts the best hands in the NBA and will catch any pass in his huge radius.  Griffin still has a lot to improve on defensively and in the post before reaching his full potential.

7.  Russell Westbrook

PPG: 20.7  APG: 6.7  RPG: 5.9  SPG: 1.8

For some reason the public loved Derrick Rose but have not fully embraced the combination of power and grace that is Westbrook.  Three knee surgeries in a six month span have kept him from playing much this season, but when he is on the court he is almost always the best athlete playing.  He can get his patented elbow jump shot any time he wants, and can blow by defenders and finish at the rim.  He is active defensively using his athleticism to lock down point guards across the NBA and can rebound like a small forward.  The knock on Westbrook is that he takes too many tough shots and takes away shots from Durant.  Westbrook's ultra competitiveness and unwavering belief in his game is why he is so successful.  He is never afraid of the moment and will never take a back seat to anyone, not even Durant.

6.  Paul George

PPG: 22.7  APG: 3.4  RPG: 6.4  SPG: 1.8

George's popularity hit an all time high around Christmas.  After his excellent playoff series against LeBron James and the Heat, George was being mentioned among the NBA elite.  At his best, he can lock down his opponents best player while filling up the stat sheet on offense.  He is fearless at winning time typically scoring most of his points in the fourth quarter.  George has lead the Pacers to the best record in the Eastern Conference and on a lesser team would probably have much better offensive stats.  A recent offensive lull has knocked his status down a peg, but everyone will forget about that come playoff time.  If George becomes more consistent he will stake his claim as a top five NBA player.  Beating the Heat and making the Finals will help with that also.

5.  Stephen Curry

PPG: 24.2  APG: 8.9   RPG: 4.4  SPG: 1.7

He has already been compared to the greatest shooters in NBA history despite playing only three full seasons.  He has a lightning quick release and smooth stroke as well as the ability to create space off the dribble.  When he gets into a groove, he is nearly impossible to stop.  He is basically Kevin Durant minus eight inches.  He still suffers from a high turnover percentage, and like Durant, his slight body frame prevents him from being an elite defender.  He is currently enjoying his best season as a pro and the Warriors future looks very bright.  Curry is one deep playoff run from ascending rapidly on everyone's list.

4.  Carmelo Anthony

PPG: 28.2  APG: 3.0  RPG: 8.6

He's pretty easy to criticize but it doesn't change the fact that Anthony is the second best scorer in the NBA behind Durant.  He can fill it up from three and muscle it to the rim.  He has improved his rebounding and efficiency this season.  Despite the Knicks being an embarrassment, he has never played harder or been closer to his potential.  Anthony is a volume shooter who looks to score first and although capable, does not play defense consistently.  Until he can take a team past the second round of the playoffs there will always be questions on whether or not he can win a championship, but there is no denying the talent.

3.  Chris Paul

PPG: 19.0  APG: 11.2  RPG: 4.6  SPG: 2.5

Paul's competitive ferocity has made him an elite NBA player for several years.  He is a pass first point guard but relishes putting his team on his back in the fourth quarter.  He is the best defender at his position and can pull down rebounds when it's needed.  Like Anthony, Paul has never been past the second round of the playoffs.  After forcing his way out of New Orleans, Paul signed with the Clippers in hopes of making a playoff run.  The Western Conference is filled with great teams but Paul has to lead his team to the Western Conference Finals if he wants to hold his place at the table.  He has the coach, the complimentary star and the veteran bench.  Big things are expected out of Paul and the Clippers.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Durant's MVP Lead Fuels James

Funny thing about a neglected blog as my homepage...

It forces me to think about it every time I open my computer.   "There you are.  I see you."

When it feels me pulling away it tries to talk to me..."What's up, Buddy? You good? Alright, yeah man, just checking in.  Remember that Chargers post six months ago?  I remember, like, you were typing so fast at one point and, like, my screen totally couldn't catch up. That was awesome.  Yeah, September was fun.  Seems like awhile ago doesn't it?"

Sometimes I try hiding from my needy blog homepage and use my Ipad more.  But as time goes by in silence my blog homepage tries to reconnect... "Remember me?  Hey, hey man.  I just want to be friends.  No big deal.  Why don't you log in and look around?  You don't even have to write anything."

When that doesn't work, the name calling starts.  "Lazy."  "Hack."  "Procrastinator."  "Jerk."

Next comes the emotional appeal..."What about your four readers whose lives aren't being enriched by your compelling sports opinions?...And what about you Blake?...Don't you owe it to yourself to continue writing?...You like to write..."

That one usually gets me so I have to answer my blog homepage.

"It's not my fault Blog Homepage.  When football season gets in full swing I just lose track a little.  My writing time is sacrificed to watch and read and consume more football.  Then when football season is over I'm way too tired to jump back into my old writing routines."

"I mean, come on.  You understand.  During football season I'm expending extra energy figuring out if I should use conditioner on a game day, or what underwear is acceptable to wear Friday night to bed, or which speed bumps to drive over on my way home.  I still like hanging out with you, but it's a grind, man.  I have too many superstitions."

But the blog homepage doesn't give a shit about that.  It doesn't want excuses, it wants uses (bad ass wordplay off the top of my head).  Then there's awkward silence until I eventually cave in.

So, I'm back.  As is the NBA after a short All Star break.

Two weeks ago Kevin Durant was a lock for the MVP award.

He has rightfully received a tremendous amount of adulation from the media, especially after a torrid January statistically.  In the absence of Russell Westbrook, Durant has lead the OKC Thunder to the best record in the NBA.  Already the most talented scorer, Durant has elevated every aspect of his game this season.  At 25 years old he is entering his prime and deserves to be the current MVP front-runner.

There is a consensus that LeBron James and Durant are the two best players in the game.  Many believe Durant has closed the gap that once existed between them.  The chasm that exists between Durant and the third best player (whoever that is) is much wider.

After three straight trips to the Finals, James appeared to be coasting somewhat this season.  His efficiency ratings were off the charts but he lacked his signature energy on defense.  Most believed James was saving himself for the post season.  Others believed he lacked motivation after all the recent success.

He isn't coasting anymore.  Using the attention paid to Durant as fuel, James has announced his intention to give him a run in the MVP race.

It apparently bothered James that he was being overshadowed and outperformed by Durant.  When Durant started getting hot offensively, James publicly stated he was "jealous" of the shot attempts Durant gets.  When the debate shows declared Durant as a lock for the MVP award, James had a video leak of him dunking in practice.  Most recently, when Durant elevated his team to the best record in the NBA, James picked up his scoring and took the Heat on a 5-1 Western Conference road trip that included a buzzer beater three to beat Golden State, and a head to head victory over Durant and the Thunder. 

Durant has not been as vocal as James about winning awards, but it's no secret he's not just coming for the MVP.  He's coming for James' throne.  He wants the awards, the championships and James' place at the table.

The growing threat of Durant has James' full attention.  He wants the MVP if for nothing more than to beat out Durant.  Only one player can take the award but as fans we all win with this burgeoning rivalry.  This is the first time in James' career that he has had a legitimate counterpart.  Will they bring the best out of each other like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson?  It seems Durant has already done that for James.

James will have to be special, even by his standards, to overtake Durant.  Winning four of the last five MVP's has created voter fatigue similar to the Michael Jordan era.  James would have to be definitively better than Durant to force the voters to give him a third straight MVP.

Durant will probably win the MVP this season but he is no longer a lock.  His consistency is remarkable, his team is excellent and voters are eager to give the award to anyone not named LeBron.  But James has accepted Durant's challenge ensuring a riveting finish to the season from the league's top two players.  Hopefully it's a duel that lasts well past this season.


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