ESPN NBA Rank: Carmelo Anthony, Tony Parker, and Pau Gasol

17. Carmelo Anthony, F, New York Knicks: Depending on the eventual place of Kobe Bryant, there may not be a more hotly contested and argued ranking than Anthony’s, and it makes a lot of sense.  On the surface what’s not to like about ‘Melo? He has a rare combination of size and athleticism, might have basketball’s best one-on-one game, all the tools to be an elite defender, and every now and then even flashes LeBron-like creating skills.  And my god, when he has it rolling offensively nobody in the league makes it look better.  But all those shallow attributes only mean so much in terms of actual on-court impact, meaning his is the case where digging through advanced statistics must reign supreme over simply sitting back and watching New York.

Consider the following, and perhaps Anthony doesn’t even deserve the ranking legions of Knicks fans believe is at least 10 spots too low – Carmelo was part of just one regular Knicks lineup last season that had a positive adjusted +/-, and in it he played power forward (hat tip to ESPN’s Beckley Mason).  You won’t find a similar statement of fact about any of the players in this stratosphere of the rankings and rightfully so.  Prodigious talent will only take a player so far in the NBA if he refuses to adjust his game to best befit his team, and so far in his career Anthony just hasn’t done so consistently.

He’s a negative defensively despite his natural gifts, a ball-stopping, long-jumper-taking offensive presence, and is all too often out of shape and/or disinterested at different points of the season.  Anthony should be a true franchise player in the mold of James or Kevin Durant, a forward with prodigious skill and the unique ability to play multiple positions and roles for his team equally well.  But he isn’t, and to expect anything more now – at 28 and in his 10th season – will prove disappointing for Knicks and basketball fans everywhere.

On potential ability alone, Anthony is a near-singular player.  But “what if,” “could be,” and “flashes” only mean so much, and taking that in mind as well as the countless statistics that downplay his positive influence point to Carmelo being overrated at 17.  However, New York should take solace in the fact that the best season of Anthony’s career was 2008-2009, one in which he was coming off a Gold Medal in the Olympic Games.  It was easy to believe in ‘Melo back then, and if he replicates that performance in 2012-2013 many will again.  But I won’t be one of them.

16. Tony Parker, PG, San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs couldn’t have re-invented themselves the way they did last season without a surprise career year from Parker, and he delivered with aplomb.  Taking on new responsibilities on the floor and in the locker room at the behest of Gregg Popovich, Parker led San Antonio to the league’s best regular season record, an incredible run of 20 straight victories that lasted into the playoffs, and a near NBA Finals birth.  Not too shabby.

Always an awesome scorer and individual creator, Parker spearheaded the Spurs free-wheeling offensive attack by distributing more than he ever has, averaging a career-high 9.6 assists per 40 minutes.  Of particular note was his newfound proficiency at getting into the lane and finding awaiting shooters in the corner, a key aspect of SA’s overwhelming offense.  And despite owning the wheel of the Spurs’ breakneck pace, Parker didn’t turn it over much either, registering the third lowest rate of his career.

In the past it was hard to place Parker among the league’s point-guard hierarchy due to the presence of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili alongside him.  But in 2012 the Spurs were his team first, and his new brilliance could be fully appreciated by seeing just how influential he was to the SA offense on a nightly basis.  He’s not on Chris Paul’s level and maybe not Russell Westbrook’s, but he’s clearly one of the league’s best players regardless.

15. Pau Gasol, F, Los Angeles Lakers: This is an interesting spot for Gasol, who may take on even less of an offensive role this season than he did in 2011.  With Steve Nash and Dwight Howard aboard, though, his opportunities – though fewer in quantity – will undoubtedly spike in quality.  And if LA runs as much Princeton Offense as Mike Brown recently indicated, it’s hard to imagine a big man better suited for his role in it than Gasol, and two better running mates than Nash and Howard, too.  Let’s just hope Kobe Bryant doesn’t mess it up by jacking a bunch of contested, off-the-dribble 20-footers.

Gasol will again play farther away from the basket this season due to the presence of Howard, and though he’s not in the extremely mobile mold of LaMarcus Aldridge or Chris Bosh he can still do a lot of damage from the perimeter.  He’s a very solid shooter from 18-feet and might be the league’s best passing big man, two key traits for an offense that boasts this much talent. He’ll be a constant weakside release valve, throw countless lobs to Howard, and run the occasional pick-and-roll this season for the Lakers, and it’s tough to imagine another player primed to thrive in that role more than him.

Defensively, Gasol isn’t the savant he is on the other end, but is nonetheless a solid player.  He’s stuck between not being quite big enough to handle centers like Howard or Bynum, and not quick enough to chase stretch 4s on the perimeter (a weakness exploited notably by Denver and Oklahoma City in the playoffs).  Still, he’s a good shot-blocker and a very underrated rebounder, and won’t be a negative here by any stretch.

That out of the way, is his ranking justified? It’s tough to choose between guys like he, Aldridge, Bosh, and Kevin Garnett at this point, but ESPN’s voters put him at the top of that group.  That might be a stretch but hardly worth consternation.  Gasol is still elite, and the one upcoming could be his best season in years.