ESPN NBA Rank: LaMarcus Aldridge, Steve Nash, and Chris Bosh

Apr 7, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) drives against Milwaukee Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova (7) during the fourth quarter at the Bradley Center. The Bucks defeated the Trail Blazers 116-94. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

As our own Sonny Giuliano continues counting down his estimable list of the top 50 players in the NBA, the folks over at ESPN are doing the same.  And finally, after weeks of slowly cutting the fat, the worldwide leader is down to ranking the league’s 20 best.

We covered NBA Rank late last month when it was in its infancy, beginning the countdown from the woebegone Eddy Curry at 500.  We offered our opinion on the places ESPN’s basketball minds gave the league’s lower-level guys, mostly opining that rookies were being extremely undervalued and noticing that slow, plodding big men dominated the 400s.

That became a bit redundant after a few days so we moved onto bigger and better things.  But the time to come back to NBA Rank is now, as the project enters the realm of elite and debate is ever prevalent and heated.  Without further ado, to the rankings!

20. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Portland Trailblazers: Before assessing whether or not Aldridge is ranked properly, its important to make note of his official listed position as a forward.  The Blazers’ website, the NBA’s and ESPN’s all list the 6’11” Aldridge as a forward, and that speaks to Portland’s intention to play him alongside a more traditional center like 2012 first-round pick Meyers Leonard.  Of course, Aldridge has played his best basketball manning the middle for the Blazers in the past, and as the game gets smaller and smaller conventional sense points to LMA playing Center full time as the best option for he and his team.  But Portland is going a different direction, and it’s a mistake.

With that out of the way, how does Aldridge’s value align with his ranking? Pretty appropriately.  A great player and clear All-Star, he’s still a notch below the league’s top-tier big men and didn’t show enough progression last season to say otherwise.  There was thought that after a breakout 2010-2011 he’d ascend amongst the game’s true best, but Aldridge might have peaked at what he is.  Right or wrong, we’ll find out soon given the talent surrounding him in Portland this season.  LMA will carry the biggest nightly load of his suddenly seven year career in 2012, and it will go a long way toward determining whether or not he’s the true franchise player this organization seems to believe he is.

19. Steve Nash, PG, Los Angeles Lakers: Nash kicks things off for the new-look Lakers’ quartet of stars at 19, an amazing feat considering his age and the burden placed on him for the last eight seasons as leader of the Suns’ breakneck attack.  And if offense was the only thing taken into account here, a great argument could be made that Nash deserves a spot firmly among the league’s top several players.  No player has had as much positive impact on his team’s offensive success than Nash since he came into the NBA in that fateful 1996 draft, a fact well-indicated by most any statistic available and the unreliable eye-test.  He’s just that brilliant with the ball in his hands, though, perhaps the best shooter and passer basketball knows.

But he’s got enough deficiencies on the other end to make this ranking hardly worth complaining over.  Nash had the lowest foul rate in basketball last season, evidence he placed even less worth on that end of the floor than ever.  Considering his reputation as a defender has always been shoddy and his slowly-decreasing lateral quickness, that’s indicative of his defensive value.  He had the lowest steal rate among point guards, too, and very rarely was asked to check opposing point guards, instead being “hidden” on a team’s least effective perimeter scorer.

Nash’s role with the Lakers will be supremely different than any he’s played in his career.  With Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol all deserving touches and the latter unlikely to usurp much ballhandling duty, his usage should plummet.  Is that a good thing for LA? The unequivocal answer is no,  and that speaks to just how great a player Nash still is.  Some food for though to end things – for this season only, would the Brooklyn Nets be better off with Nash or Deron Williams?

18. Chris Bosh, F, Miami Heat: Like Aldridge, Bosh is still officially listed as a forward.  And like Aldridge, Bosh is a multi-faceted scorer that is effective on the block, taking his man off the dribble, or spotting up for a long jumper.  But the Heat are smart enough to know they’re at their best when Bosh is the team’s de-facto Center, a long-held thought driven home by his awesome performance in the final 10 games or so of the 2012 postseason. (Of course, if the Blazers had a transcendant player like LeBron James to play the 4 they’d probably go this route, too).  And to Bosh’s great credit he’s embraced his new role with Miami, publicly reneging on his previous preference to play anything but the middle.  Kudos.

Oft mocked since 2010 for playing a clear third wheel to James and Dwyane Wade, those days are over.  Bosh established himself as a tough, versatile, two-way big man against the Celtics and Thunder in June, and has emerged as the perfect complement to James in the Heat’s small-ball attack.  He’s come a long way as a pick-and-roll defender and rebounder, too, indicative of his newfound comfort doing some of the dirty work we never thought he would.

Bosh, clearly and by any measure, is an All-Star and one of the best big men in the league.  But is he better than Kevin Garnett (ranked 21st) and Aldridge? Or on the same level as Pau Gasol, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Love (all yet to be ranked)? Those are very debatable questions, but ones that after 2011 weren’t worthy of discussion.  They are now though, and that speaks to Bosh’s place in the NBA.