Jeff Green is another frustrating player on this list, not for what he can do but for what he doesn’t do consistently, which is a slight nuance, considering he didn’t necessarily get the minutes of his counterparts on this list last season. However, when his number was called – specifically when Rondo went down with the ACL injury – Green was in full All-Star mode.
From February to the end of the season, Green averaged over 17 points and five boards for Boston, and carried that momentum into the playoffs against the Knicks, averaging 20 points while shooting 45 percent from the three-point line in six games. Like Harrison Barnes, Green is one of the most explosive young players with a flair for the occasional show-stopping highlight, a la his facial on Al Jefferson. However, with his performance in a loss against the Miami Heat in March – 43 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals, and four blocks – we saw a kid who’s capable of being an NBA star. (Sidenote: The last player other than Paul Pierce to drop 40 points in a regular-season game for Boston was Antoine Walker in 2001.)
With brilliant new coach Brad Stevens stepping in, as well as All-Star Rajon Rondo almost healthy, Green should see plenty of touches. And even though he’s often been best suited being a second or third scoring option, I’m convinced Green will have a breakout season in 2013.
7. PAUL PIERCE
Listen, I feel bad for Pierce. It’s strange for me seeing The Truth in Brooklyn, so I know it’s strange for him as well. It seems like every time a new Pierce soundbite comes out, he’s talking about how difficult it was transitioning from Boston, and how he wants to remain a fixture in the city despite his departure. How this will affect the chemistry with his new teammates remains to be seen, but Pierce should prove a valuable addition to a team that should compete for the Eastern Conference.
Many have stated that Pierce has lost a step, and from the beginning of last season to the All-Star break, they had a legitimate case. At one point in January, his field goal percentage was below 40 percent, his lowest since the 2003-04 season. However, after the break andRondo was sidelined with his ACL injury, Pierce showed us why he’s a surefire Hall of Fame player. Pierce averaged 19 points, six rebounds and six assists after the All-Star break while shooting 49 percent from the field, including 43 percent from behind the arc. He’s more than capable of playing like an All-Star when healthy, especially if he has a little momentum. In games where the Celtics had no days rest last season, Pierce averaged 21 points and six rebounds, while shooting 50 percent from the field.
So much for being an old man.
6. KAWHI LEONARD
What Leonard did in the NBA Finals last year was remarkable, so it’s fitting that he deserves some praise. The 22-year-old forward combined for 41 points in Games 6 and 7, and showed that he not only possessed a wicked spot-up shot, but the ability to slash to the rim and finish. He converted over 65 percent of his field goal attempts in the restricted area, and with his penchant for grabbing offensive rebounds, he proves to be a versatile commodity for the Spurs.
If Leonard does have a weakness, it’s that most of his field goals come off of assists. He isn’t the greatest at creating his own shot off the dribble, and his handle – even for a small forward – leaves much to be desired. With Manu Ginobili close to his NBA deathbed, the Spurs need another player who’s capable of creating viable shot opportunities for others, and Kawhi looks to be that guy.
However, those are minor gripes that can improve with experience. He can rebound, shoot, is tough as nails, and is an absolute pest on defense. For a player who typically doesn’t get any plays called for him, and still produces the way he does is phenomenal. And while he’s still so young, he has the perfect mindset and focus. If I were to make any predictions, I’d expect him to have a Paul George-like ascension this year, and be firmly in the conversation for Most Improved Player.
The sky is the limit for this kid.
5. LUOL DENG
Coach Tom Thibodeau has been on the record with his Deng praise, stating that he is the “glue” to this relentless Bulls team. And without the small forward for the last seven games last postseason due to complications from spinal tap, Chicago struggled. Now that he’s healthy – he’s regained the 15 pounds he lost from the ordeal – he looks to pick up where he left off last season.
Deng is one of the NBA’s premier wing defenders, and he’s typically first in line when it comes to guarding the Kobes and LeBrons of the world. He averaged 16 points, six rebounds and three assists in 2012, and does so while playing well over 40 minutes a game, a statistic Thibodeau hopes to reduce this season. However, with a player of his caliber, who brings it every night and provides the exemplary leadership for this tough Chicago team, it’ll be tough to keep him off the floor.
4. PAUL GEORGE
Thanks to last year’s NBA Playoffs, there’s not a basketball enthusiast in the world who doesn’t know George’s name. The 6-9 forward has become one of the most electrifying young players in the game, thanks to his remarkable playmaking ability and ability to penetrate the paint. He’s already established himself as an elite defender and while he isn’t a complete offensive force just yet – his turnovers spiked last year due to an increased workload – he’s still more than capable of torching a team for 30-15 on any given night. He’s an above-average threat from three-point range, and ask Chris “Birdman” Andersen if PG 24 can finish at the rim. It’ll take some time for George to be mentioned with the three guys ahead of him on this list, but he’s off to a strong start.
3. CARMELO ANTHONY
I’ll put my Knick bias aside for this one, but with all due respect to Kevin Durant, ‘Melo is the most complete pure scorer in the league. Last season’s NBA scoring champion is coming off an excellent season where he averaged 28 points per game – including an April where he averaged a smidgen under 37 points per game – and spearheaded the Knicks into the playoffs. However, Anthony’s scoring can only take the Knicks so far.
For as great as he is, the only way ‘Melo can overtake Durant and James as the best player in the NBA is by becoming a more efficient player – and winning. He shot 45 percent from the field last year, which isn’t miserable, but it’s subpar considering Durant shot over 50 percent and James close to 57 percent. In the playoffs, both his field goal and three-point percentages dipped to 40 and 30, respectively, and he has never accepted the complete playmaking role that his counterparts revel in. Anthony relishes in isolation, one-on-one basketball, which often creates stagnancy and an unnecessary dependency on one player to produce when things start to crumble. And you just can’t win playoff games that way. It also doesn’t help that James is going for his third consecutive NBA title, and Durant has an NBA Finals appearance while Anthony hasn’t gone further than the conference finals. At 29, who knows if the Baltimore native will face the same pressure to win a title that James did, but one has to believe that time is coming.
However, the Knicks have a small chance of making the NBA Finals without Carmelo playing this way, and that’s a true dilemma. Despite Mike Woodson’s reputation as a defensive coach, don’t expect this Knicks team to be a carbon copy of the Chicago Bulls. With Amar’e Stoudemire somewhat healthy and somewhat deficient in the post, and the addition of Andrea Bargnani, New York will again be vulnerable in the paint. And with the exception of Iman Shumpert, the Knicks’ backcourt won’t fare much better, either.
That being said, you’ll see more of the same from the Carmelo and the Knicks this season. With J.R. Smith and now Bargnani, New York has their fair share of sharpshooters on the perimeter, which should continue opening up the floor for ‘Melo to succeed, whether it’s in the post or on the outside. However, all this depends on if these players can remain efficient. When Smith, the Knicks’ second-best scoring option, is on his game – shooting efficiently from outside AND attacking the rim – he’s damn near elite, which makes everything easier for Anthony and his teammates. When he’s not, defenses can zero in on ‘Melo, throw extra defenders at him and it’ll be tough times in the Garden.
The Knicks come and go by Carmelo, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s elite.
2. KEVIN DURANT
It’s unfortunate because as long as LeBron is around, Durant will never get the real credit he deserves. But he’s also ahead of Anthony, so the number two spot seems fitting. But man, Durantula is phenomenal. For a player who shoots as much as he does – he averaged 18 shots last season – he was still a member of the heralded 50-40-90 club while scoring more than anyone to ever accomplish such feat. The man is an offensive virtuoso. Durant also proved himself to be a formidable playmaker, setting career-highs in assists, steals and blocks in 2012. James is better than Durant, and depending on how things play out, possibly everyone ever. So in this case, there’s nothing wrong with being second. But KD is already an all-time great.
1. LeBRON JAMES
Was this ever in question? I think the bigger question is if the four-time MVP ever loses his title as the best overall player in the league, let alone small forward. And it’s really a shame for Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony because for how great they are, they’re really not even close to King James at this point.
Scoring, passing, rebounding – there’s nothing that LBJ can’t do on the floor. He’s had a PER over 30 for two consecutive seasons, the only player since MJ to do so, and there isn’t a reason to believe he won’t do it for the next two or three more seasons if he remains healthy. He’s also led the NBA in total win shares every season since 2008-09.
Last season, James shot over 56 percent from the field, which is absolutely filthy for a non-center, and hit over 40 percent from deep – both career-highs. That means after a decade in the league, the NBA’s best player continues to improve upon his statistics. On the defensive end, he’s a certified lock who can guard every position, and while Marc Gasol won the DPOY award, a case can be made for LeBron being the best sheer defender in the league. His block on Tiago Splitter in last year’s NBA Finals is already legendary status.
With two consecutive NBA titles to complement his four regular-season MVPs, the proverbial monkey is off his back and it shows in his continued torrid play. And the scariest part? At age 28, he’s just now hitting his prime.