With 2017 arriving, we reflect upon what was the 2016 portion of the 2016-17 NBA regular season. Who are the Top 20 players entering the New Year?
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Dec 27, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) warms up prior to the game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
In the eyes of the casual fan, the 2016-17 NBA regular season has officially begun. Christmas Day has passed, meaning the big games are beginning to be played and the postseason picture is taking shape.
Though diehard fans have been watching since Day 1, if one were to embrace this theory, it would entail that the race for MVP has officially begun, as well.
All 30 NBA teams have played at least 30 games, which inevitably leads to outings that follow increasing in importance. For that reason, the stars of the Association will be facing even more pressure than they already have through two full calendar months.
Some players will respond like the stars they are, while others will crumble under the pressure of having to shine when it matters—and this list will determine who is who.
A number of deserving players failed to make the cut, including Draymond Green, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Kevin Love, and Klay Thompson. All four players have been sensational in 2016-17, but they narrowly miss the Top 20 going into 2017.
With four of the league’s brightest stars excluded, the obvious question is presented: who are the Top 20 players in the NBA?
Dec 18, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; LA Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) dribbles the ball as Washington Wizards forward Markieff Morris (5) defends at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 117-110. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Honorable Mention: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Position: Power Forward Age: 27 (3/16/1989) Experience: 7th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .480/.227/.749 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.7 MPG, 21.2 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.0 ORPG, 4.7 APG, 1.0 SPG
Keeping Blake Griffin entirely off of this list would be criminal based on how well he’s played in 2016-17. Had he not suffered an injury that will require him to miss more than a month of action, he’d be in the Top 15.
Griffin has resided in the 10-to-12 range for most of this season, and it’s only fair that he be included as an honorable mention despite his injury.
Griffin is casually overlooked in the, “Elite players,” discussion, but he’s played a prominent role in the Los Angele Clippers being perennial contenders. One could argue they aren’t true contenders due to their second-round limitations, but but they’re always in the running.
For perspective on how valuable he is to the Clippers’ success, they’re 19-7 when Griffin plays in 2016-17 and 3-5 when he doesn’t.
Once Griffin returns from his current injury, he’ll likely make an immediate return to the player power rankings. He has a unique skill set in that he can go to the post, excel from midrange, handle the ball in transition, and facilitate the offense.
Griffin’s injury is unfortunate, but if he comes back strong, he should help the Clippers return to contending status.
Dec 21, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) reacts after a foul in the fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Sacramento Kings defeated the Utah Jazz 94-93. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
20. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Position: Center Age: 24 (6/26/1992) Experience: 4th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .695/.000/.648 2016-17 Season Averages: 32.8 MPG, 12.3 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 3.1 ORPG, 2.6 BPG, 0.7 SPG
The No. 20 spot was a battle between key contributors to teams that have won at a tremendous rate early in 2016-17: Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz, Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors.
For as deserving as every player was, this decision came down to Gobert and Hayward for the manner in which they’ve elevated the Jazz to postseason-caliber status.
Gobert has been Utah’s most consistent player and the anchor of a defense that ranks amongst the best in the NBA. He’s No. 1 in the Association in field goal percentage and No. 2 in blocks per game, and has the Jazz ranked No. 1 in the NBA in scoring defense.
Hayward has re-established himself as Utah’s closer, however, which is why this decision was so difficult to make.
The advantage that Gobert has over Hayward is that he was helping Utah win in the swingman’s absence. The other advantage is that the Jazz are winning games on the strength of their defense and Gobert is the player who’s anchoring that push.
There are a number of stars who deserve the No. 20 spot, but Gobert has been a true force of nature for the 20-13 Jazz.
Dec 28, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) passes while Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) defends during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
19. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Position: Point Guard Age: 26 (5/8/1990) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .457/.409/.813 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.3 MPG, 22.3 PPG, 5.4 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 2.7 3PM
Two members of the Charlotte Hornets qualify for the unofficial, “Most underrated in the NBA,” list. The first is head coach Steve Clifford, who has solidified his status as one of the most respected minds in the Association.
The other is star point guard Kemba Walker, who continues to rise to the occasion for a Hornets team that many expected to regress.
Cardiac Kemba continues to be one of the best closers in the NBA. He’s improved his game to the point of playing at a star-caliber level when it’s not a clutch scenario, which makes his closer status the solidifying factor in his Top 20 ranking.
Charlotte is well above .500 as at 19-14 son and Walker is shooting an obscenely efficient 50.0 percent from the field during clutch situations.
Walker has been one of the most dynamic talents in the NBA for quite some time. He’s beginning to piece it all together as he enters his prize, however, and the statistics are a fair reflection of just how dangerous he’s become.
The list of players who are currently averaging at least 20.0 points and 5.0 assists per game on a slash line of .450/.400/.800 consists of just Walker, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, and Stephen Curry.
Dec 23, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) high fives forward Maurice Harkless (4) at the end of first quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
18. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Position: Point Guard Age: 26 (7/15/1990) Experience: 5th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .454/.352/.896 2016-17 Season Averages: 35.8 MPG, 27.0 PPG, 6.2 APG, 4.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 2.6 3PM
The Portland Trail Blazers are 2-10 over the past 12 games. Thus, for as phenomenally as Damian Lillard has played individually, it’s impossible to ignore the erratic nature of the Trail Blazers’ season.
Keeping Lillard out of the Top 20 with a season like he’s having simply wouldn’t be rational, which is why he holds onto the No. 16 spot.
Only two players are averaging at least 25.0 points per game on a slash line of .450/.350/.800 or better in 2016-17: Lillard and Kevin Durant. Lillard still has 48 games to play, but only seven guards have combined his volume and efficiency since the 1999-2000 season.
Those guards are Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Lillard, and Michael Redd.
Lillard is currently battling an ankle injury, but he shouldn’t miss enough time for his ranking to be invalidated. The hope is that his return to the starting lineup will come at the perfect time to stabilize the Trail Blazers’ rotation.
Lillard is producing at an incredible rate, but the Trail Blazers will need to start winning games again if he’s going to have a shot at MVP.
Dec 25, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas drives in for a shot against New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee (5) during the second half at Madison Square Garden. The Celtics won 119-114. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
17. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Position: Point Guard Age: 27 (2/7/1989) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .444/.333/.899 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.3 MPG, 26.9 PPG, 6.3 APG, 2.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 2.3 3PM
If Isaiah Thomas remains healthy and continues to produce at this level, he should be a lock for the 2017 All-Star Game. He saved the Boston Celtics when Jae Crowder and Al Horford missed an extended period of time, and hasn’t slowed down.
Since returning from a four-game injury absence, Thomas has firmly established his place as one of the Top 20 players in the NBA.
Boston went 1-3 without Thomas and has gone 6-2 since he returned. During that eight-game stretch, Thomas has averaged 29.3 points, 6.8 assists, and 2.8 3-point field goals made on 49.7 percent shooting from the field.
Al Horford is one of the most well-rounded players in the NBA, but it’s Thomas’ scoring and playmaking that have paced the Celtics through 2016-17.
Thomas’ signature performance over the past eight games was a 44-point eruption against the Memphis Grizzlies. He also torched the New York Knicks for 27 points on Christmas Day and had 34 points and 10 assists against Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Thomas’ nine points in the fourth quarter on Christmas Day are a microcosm of what makes his season so special: he’s as clutch as any player in the NBA.
Dec 26, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) defends Detroit Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) as Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) dribbles the ball during the first quarter at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
16. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Position: Point Guard Age: 24 (3/22/1991) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .481/.420/.876 2016-17 Season Averages: 34.7 MPG, 23.9 PPG, 6.0 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 2.3 3PM
The Cleveland Cavaliers have three legitimate stars in LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving. Though Irving is viewed as more of an upside player than a presently elite contributor, he’s beginning to realize his potential before our very eyes.
Long pegged as a score-first point guard with an unhealthy tunnel vision, Irving has begun to break out as one of the most gifted facilitators in the NBA.
Irving has recorded at least 10 assists in five of the Cavaliers’ past seven games. He’s also recorded 16 steals over the Cavaliers’ past four games, which is a strong sign that he’s rounding into form as the true point guard he’s skilled enough to be.
Irving was compared to the likes of Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving coming out of high school, and it’s becoming easier to understand why.
Irving began his recent five-game stretch by torching the Milwaukee Bucks for 31 points and 13 assists. He also had 25 points, 10 assists, seven steals, and a game-winner against the Golden State Warriors, and dropped 32 points and 12 assists against the Boston Celtics.
If you were on the fence about whether or not Irving is a Top 20 player, then the past seven games should’ve calmed your nerves.
December 28, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) during the second half at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Raptors 121-111. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Whether you love or hate DeMar DeRozan’s midrange-based game, there’s no question that it’s working. He’s one of the Top 5 scorers in the NBA and has embraced the need to defend and facilitate at higher levels.
Whether or not he begins to value the 3-point shot in the near future, DeRozan is evolving into a two-way player who embraces the need for offensive versatility.
DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors lost to the Golden State Warriors, but he helped lead a comeback that sent quite the statement. He posted 29 points, six assists, five rebounds, three steals, and a block in a game that was a microcosm for his development.
DeRozan and the Raptors won’t be defeated because of a lack of effort, and DeRozan’s relentlessness is a key to that identity.
DeRozan is on pace to set career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals per game. He’s also on pace to set new career-highs in field goals and free throws made and attempted, as well as field goal percentage.
There’s no telling if DeRozan will be able to maintain this sensational pace, but he’s a stellar postseason away from superstardom.
Dec 28, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) shoots as Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) defends during the second half at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 111 – 105. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
14. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Position: Point Guard Age: 26 (9/6/1990) Experience: 7th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .463/.333/.813 2016-17 Season Averages: 36.4 MPG, 23.7 PPG, 9.9 APG, 4.6 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 1.2 3PM
If you still don’t believe John Wall is one of the Top 20 players in the NBA, I’m not quite sure what you’ve been watching. He’s one of the few point guards who gets the job done on both ends of the floor, and flirts with elite status as both a scorer and facilitator.
Having led the Washington Wizards to nine wins in 13 games, Wall is beginning to make a powerful case for an All-NBA bid in 2017.
Wall is leading a turnaround in Washington by embracing his ability to take over games in multiple ways. Most recently, he dropped 36 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, and two steals on 11-of-19 shooting from the field in a 111-105 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
The previous time out, Wall tallied 18 points and 16 assists during a 107-102 win against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Wall has endured extended stretches without fellow backcourt star Bradley Beal, but he’s been the epitome of consistency. Washington knows exactly what it’s going to get from Wall on a nightly basis, which is why the recent spikes in production are so intriguing.
If Wall can continue to read the game as well as he has in recent weeks, the Wizards can compete with any team in the Eastern Conference.
Dec 28, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) dribbles the ball against Brooklyn Nets guard Randy Foye (2) during the second half at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
13. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Position: Small Forward Age: 27 (9/14/1989) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .453/.346/.890 2016-17 Season Averages: 36.4 MPG, 24.5 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 4.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 1.1 3PM
The Chicago Bulls are a mess on the offensive end of the floor. They’re overrun by non-shooters and a system that all but ignores the 3-point shot as an option, thus placing an overwhelming burden on slashing and pushing the pace.
The defense has stepped up to help Chicago pull back to an even .500 at 16-16, but none of the positives would be possible without Jimmy Butler.
Butler has impressed with his production, but it’s his clutch heroics that are most noteworthy. That much was on full display when he drained a game-winning buzzer beater to complete a performance for the ages.
Despite rolling his ankle with less than five minutes on the clock, Butler willed the Bulls to a 101-99 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
Butler couldn’t put weight on his ankle, but adrenaline took over and he did the same. With Chicago trailing 97-90 with 2:35 remaining on the clock, Butler dominated with nine points in the final 2:34 alone.
Butler finished with his second 40-point game of the season and a gutsy clutch performance that will live on his career highlight reel for years to come.
Dec 28, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins (15) dunks the ball against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
If the 2016-17 NBA regular season were to end today, the Sacramento Kings would make the playoffs. 14-18 isn’t exactly a postseason-caliber record from a traditional perspective, but DeMarcus Cousins has done enough to put Sacramento in control of its own destiny.
Having won four of their past five games, as well as six of nine, Cousins and the Kings appear to be thriving at the perfect time.
The recent run began when Cousins posted 55 points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks in a 126-121 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Cousins followed that outing with a number of strong showings, including his 30-point performance in a 102-100 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Cousins also dropped 32 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, four steals, and two blocks in a 109-105 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Any time a player scores 55 points and wins a game for their team, their ranking is going to improve. The fact that Cousins is averaging numbers that many legends never reached is a testament to just how special of a talent he is.
For perspective, Cousins is on pace to become just the third player since Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000 to average at least 29.0 points and 11.0 rebounds per game.
December 28, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) looks on during the second quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
11. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Position: Point Guard Age: 30 (3/25/1986) Experience: 11th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .469/.444/.843 2016-17 Season Averages: 37.1 MPG, 22.2 PPG, 7.3 APG, 4.8 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 3.4 3PM
It’s rare that Kyle Lowry receives the respect he deserves for being the star player that he’s become. The Toronto Raptors are on pace for a fourth consecutive division title and are looking the part of a near contender, yet Lowry is consistently overlooked in, “Elite point guard,” debates.
With Toronto off to a 22-9 start to the season and Lowry having a hand in its success on both ends of the floor, he deserves this Top 15 ranking.
Lowry is currently No. 4 in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus. He has a better Offensive Real Plus-Minus than Chris Paul and a better Defensive Real Plus-Minus than Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook.
If that isn’t enough to convince you if his merit, try the fact that the Raptors have net ratings of +13.1 with Lowry on the floor and -2.2 without him.
Lowry is the only player whom Toronto has a negative net rating without, which is a testament to his value. He facilitates and defends at high levels, but he’ll take over as a scorer when need be, as evidenced by his 36 points on 15-of-20 shooting against the Utah Jazz.
DeMar DeRozan may be averaging more points per game, but Lowry is still the Most Valuable Player on the Raptors.
Dec 26, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) passes between Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) and center Bismack Biyombo (11) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
10. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Position: Center Age: 31 (1/29/1985) Experience: 9th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .451/.419/.822 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.9 MPG, 20.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.6 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 1.5 3PM
If you haven’t been watching the Memphis Grizzlies in 2016-17, then you’re missing out on a special season from Marc Gasol. He’s been brilliant on offense, a Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner on the other end, and clutch at the end of games.
Gasol’s recent eruption for 38 points on 14-of-17 shooting against Andre Drummond, as well as his 26 points and nine assists against Al Horford, serve as evidence.
Gasol has helped the Grizzlies overcome the absence of star point guard Mike Conley, who has missed 12 of 35 games. Nevertheless, Memphis is 21-14 and making a strong push for a high seed in the 2017 NBA Playoffs.
Though it may seem hyperbolic to some, it’s fair to believe that the Grizzlies would be lost without Gasol stepping up in the way he has.
The Grizzlies have net ratings of +3.4 when Gasol is on the floor and -4.2 when he isn’t. Not only is that a difference of 7.6 points per 100 possessions, but it’s the difference between winning and losing games.
Gasol is in line for a second Defensive Player of the Year award with Memphis at No. 1 in the NBA defensive efficiency. He may also be in line for an All-NBA First Team nod.
December 28, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) dribbles the basketball against Toronto Raptors forward Patrick Patterson (54) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Raptors 121-111. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
9. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Position: Point Guard Age: 28 (3/14/1988) Experience: 8th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .467/.401/.935 2016-17 Season Average: 33.3 MPG, 24.2 PPG, 5.9 APG, 4.2 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 3.7 3PM
Most expected the stars of the Golden State Warriors to take a statistical step backwards following the acquisition of Kevin Durant. Adding Durant meant giving the Warriors a fourth 2016 All-NBA honoree, which inevitably meant less touches to go around.
Stephen Curry’s statistics have expectedly suffered, but there’s no way to rationally dispute his standing as a Top 10 player in 2016-17.
Curry holds a slight lead over Eric Gordon for No. 1 in the NBA with 123 3-point field goals made and is No. 12 in the Association in scoring. That alone makes him a threat to go off at any time, which adds to his incomparable value as a decoy.
Whether he’s feigning a drive to the basket and finding an open man along the perimeter or simply working off-ball to keep a defense honest, Curry creates for his teammates.
Curry struggled against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he bounced back with 28 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds against Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors. He’s sacrificed 3.4 shot attempts per game since last season, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Curry is averaging 16.8 field goal attempts per game in 2016-17—the same number he averaged when Golden State won 67 games and a title in 2014-15.
Dec 28, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) looks to drive the ball as Detroit Pistons(1) defends during the second quarter of the game at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Milwaukee defeated Detroit 119-94. Mandatory Credit: Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports
Gianni Antetokounmpo is evolution. He has the height and length to defend any of the three frontcourt positions, as well as the athleticism and improving footwork to contain players at the two guard spots.
On the offensive end of the floor, you can count on one hand the number of players who are more dynamic than Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo is the only player in the NBA who’s currently leading his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals per game. The fact that he’s doing so on a 15-15 Milwaukee Bucks team that’s in line to make the playoffs is All-NBA worthy.
If that isn’t enough to make you appreciate Antetokounmpo’s special versatility, he currently ranks in the Top 20 in the NBA in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals per game.
Antetokounmpo is doing all of this while comfortably shooting above 50 percent from the field. More importantly, he’s flirting with 80 percent shooting from the free throw line and has hit 35.0 percent of his 3-point field goals during the month of December.
For perspective, Antetokounmpo is on pace to become the first player in NBA history to average at least 20.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.0 block per game.
December 22, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) controls the ball against San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green (14) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
7. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Position: Point Guard Age: 31 (5/6/1985) Experience: 12th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .463/.399/.877 2016-17 Season Averages: 31.5 MPG, 17.7 PPG, 9.5 APG, 5.3 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 2.0 3PM
In his 12th season, Chris Paul remains one of the Top 10 players in the NBA. His efficiency as a scorer and facilitator, as well as his under-appreciated proficiency as a defender, make him arguably the most complete point guard of all-time.
Paul is still searching for elusive postseason success, but he’s pacing the Clippers to yet another strong season in 2016-17.
The Clippers are currently 21-9 when Paul plays and 0-3 when he doesn’t in 2016-17. He’s No. 1 in the NBA in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes and has been every bit as valuable to the Clippers’ success as that statistic implies.
The Clippers have a net rating of +14.2 when Paul is on the floor, but that number drops to a team-worst -4.5 when he isn’t—a difference of 18.7 points per 100 possessions.
It may be the new routine to poke fun at Paul’s postseason shortcomings, but he’s a shining example of the most well-rounded way to play the point guard position. He’s a master facilitator who rarely turns the ball over, but he’s also an efficient scorer and a sensational defender.
One can only hope that Paul will kick it into the next gear during the second round of the NBA Playoffs, but he remains one of league’s truly elite performers.
Dec 26, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) is defended by Dallas Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes (40) during the second quarter of a game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Statistically speaking, Anthony Davis may be the best player in the NBA. The New Orleans Pelicans phenom is still just 23 years of age and is already dominating the Association on an all-time individual level.
One would like to see Davis complete his evolution into a dominant all-time great by helping the Pelicans win, but that’s a work in progress.
The good news is that Davis and the Pelicans have won four of their past five games. Thus, while 13-21 may be a tough record to stomach for a team with a superstar player, New Orleans is just 2.0 games back of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
The Pelicans aren’t the only team that’s in line for a resurgent second half of the season, but there’s still 48 games to play and just a two-game deficit.
As for Davis’ individual play, he’s fresh off of dropping 28 points, 22 rebounds, and four blocks on Hassan Whiteside. He also put up 31 points and 16 rebounds on Joel Embiid, had 34 points and 14 rebounds against Steven Adams, and posted 28 points and 16 rebounds on the Dallas Mavericks.
Whether he’s slotted at the 4 or the 5, one thing has become clear about Davis: he’s going to make life like a living hell for the opposition.
Dec 25, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dunks the ball against the Chicago Bulls during the second half at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 119-100. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Position: Small Forward Age: 25 (6/29/1991) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .470/.399/.922 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.5 MPG, 24.4 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 2.0 SPG, 1.9 3PM
The San Antonio Spurs have the second-best record and the No. 5 player in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard has already accumulated a stellar resume with an NBA championship, Finals MVP, All-NBA First Team nod, and two Defensive Player of the Year awards.
If the Spurs manage to pass the Golden State Warriors in the standings, Leonard could add NBA MVP to that list.
At 25 years of age, Leonard is already one of the most decorated players in NBA history. For perspective, the only other players who have won a title, Finals MVP, and the Defensive Player of the Year award are Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
The only players to accumulate those accolades with twoDefensive Player of the Year awards are Leonard and Olajuwon.
As for the goal of passing the Warriors in the standings, the Spurs are just 1.5 games back of Golden State. Steve Kerr’s crew has too much talent to be passed, but it’s easier to say that than it is to live up to the hype.
Whether or not Leonard leads the Spurs to the best record in the NBA, he should be a legitimate candidate for MVP and an All-NBA honoree once again.
December 28, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35, right) hugs guard Stephen Curry (30) after the game against the Toronto Raptors at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Raptors 121-111. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
4. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Position: Small Forward Age: 28 (9/29/1988) Experience: 10th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .538/.401/.864 2016-17 Season Averages: 34.2 MPG, 26.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.6 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 1.9 3PM
When Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors, one word immediately came to mind: efficiency. Already one of the most productive and efficient scorers in NBA history, Durant joined a team that won 73 games in 2015-16 and 67 games plus the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2014-15.
Durant has maintained his elite scoring numbers while improving in other phases of the game and continuing to produce with obscene efficiency.
Durant is averaging carer-best numbers in rebounds and blocks per game, which is a fair reflection of his improved defense. He’s also shooting a career-best 53.8 percent from the field while still ranking in the Top 10 in scoring average.
Durant is already one of the Top 10 scorers of all-time with four scoring titles and an unfair slash line, but Golden State is making it even easier for him.
For as dominant as he may be as a scorer, Durant’s best outing of the season saw him tally just 22 points—a low number for him. He finished with 22 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists, and five blocks in a dominant all-around display against the Toronto Raptors.
Durant is beginning to tap into his potential and realize that he has the skill set and physical gifts to be dominant on a championship level.
Dec 25, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (32) dunks on Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) at Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland defeats Golden State 109-108. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Position: Small Forward Age: 32 (12/30/1984) Experience: 14th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .513/.377/.679 2016-17 Season Averages: 37.1 MPG, 25.4 PPG, 8.6 APG, 7.9 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.9 3PM
First and foremost, Happy Birthday to one of the greatest players in NBA history. The three-time NBA champion turned 32 years of age on December 30, which does nothing to detract from the belief that he still has something special left in the tank.
If the 2016-17 NBA regular season is a sign of things to come, then the NBA isn’t even close to moving on from the King James era.
James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are leading the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. This past week, one could argue that James and the Cavaliers established themselves as the leaders for the 2017 NBA championship.
Behind James’ 31 points and 13 rebounds, the defending champion Cavaliers outlasted the Golden State Warriors for a 109-108 victory.
James is averaging the numbers that we’ve come to expect from him. He’s scoring, facilitating, and rebounding at elite levels based on his position, and is having one of the best shooting seasons of his career from beyond the arc.
If James maintains his individual pace and the Cavaliers continue to win at a strong rate, he’ll be in the running for MVP.
Dec 27, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts in front of Dallas Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews (23) after scoring during the first half at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Position: Point Guard Age: 27 (8/26/1989) Experience: 8th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .443/.350/.842 2016-17 Season Averages: 36.3 MPG, 27.7 PPG, 11.9 APG, 7.8 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 3.0 3PM
What James Harden and Mike D’Antoni have accomplished in 33 games together is nothing short of remarkable. The Houston Rockets are off to a 24-9 start to the 2016-17 NBA regular season and Harden is on pace for an all-time individual campaign.
If Harden’s season averages hold, he’ll be the first player since Tiny Archibald in 1972-73 to average at least 25.0 points and 11.0 assists per game.
Stellar as Archibald’s season was, his Kansas City-Omaha Kings won just 36 games. Harden’s Rockets are on pace for 59.6 wins, which can either be rounded up to a stellar 60 or rounded down to a still spectacular 59.
If the Rockets even eclipse 50 wins, Harden will have as legitimate a case for MVP as any player in the NBA.
Harden currently leads the NBA in assists per game and is No. 4 in scoring. He’s recorded 26 double-doubles and six triple-doubles in 33 appearances, which gives him more double-doubles than any big man in the Association.
If Houston’s overachievement continues to be this extreme, one will have a difficult time arguing against Harden for MVP.
Dec 25, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after a play against theMinnesota Timberwolves during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Position: Point Guard Age: 28 (11/12/1988) Experience: 9th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .430/.335/.817 2016-17 Season Averages: 34.7 MPG, 31.3 PPG, 10.6 APG, 10.5 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 1.8 3PM
The Oklahoma City Thunder are sseven games above .500 and Russell Westbrook is having a statistical season for the ages. Thus, while his critics may be inclined to downplay his numbers, this combination of victory and production is unprecedented.
While it may be tempting to be a contrarian and downplay the all-time season that Westbrook is putting forth, the longer he does this, the more it’s put into perspective.
Westbrook has recorded 15 triple-doubles in 33 appearances—nine more than any other player in the NBA. Oklahoma City is 12-3 during those 15 outings, including a 114-101 victory over the Phoenix Suns behind what ranks amongst the greatest individual performances of all-time.
Westbrook torched Phoenix for 26 points, 22 assists, and 11 rebounds for the first 20-point, 20-assist, and 10-rebound triple-double since 1998.
Furthermore, Westbrook has per 36 averages of 32.5 points, 11.0 assists, and 10.8 rebounds. When Oscar Robertson became the first and only player to average a triple-double in 1961-62, he averaged 25.0 points, 9.2 assists, and 10.1 rebounds per 36 minutes.
What Westbrook is doing is both unprecedented and leading to team success beyond what most expected from the Kevin Durant-less Thunder.