ESPN NBA Rank: Dirk Nowitzki, Deron Williams, and Russell Westbrook

Apr 18, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) comes off the court during the game against the Houston Rockets at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks defeated the Rockets 117-110. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE

11. Dirk Nowitzki, F, Dallas Mavericks: One of the league’s poster children for returning from the work stoppage out of shape (and to his credit, admitting it), Nowitzki struggled early as a result last season.  There were times in January that it was apt to wonder whether he would ever regain his form as one of the league’s best players; that’s what happens when a shot-making veteran like Dirk averages 15 points per game, looks a step-and-a-half slower than he ever has, and is coming off a championship season.  But then the light came on just as we should have always known it would, and Nowitzki was his normally awesome self in February, March, and for the most part even a humbling first-round playoff loss to the Thunder.

So the narrative of Nowitzki’s decline for the first few weeks of 2012 are long gone, but so is the thought that he’s among basketball’s top few players.  That’s hardly a knock, but it is something that the Mavericks must recognize if they want to squeeze another legitimate title run in while Dirk can still be a team’s first banana.  Like friend and former teammate Steve Nash, Nowitzki’s game revolves so much around skill and craft that he’s likely to play near his 2012 level for the next couple seasons.  That beautiful jumper and the multiple fakes, kicks, and such that set it up won’t be going anywhere, just as Nowitzki is likely to retain his height of seven-feet, too.  He’ll remain a devastating offensive player for the foreseeable future even if he relies more than ever on long jumpers – he’s scary-accurate on long twos by the way, ranking second in the NBA last season – and loses some semblance of the dribble-drive game that made him so dominant in the 2011 playoffs.  Nowitzki is just that talented a shooter.

In analyzing these rankings, it’s become obvious how difficult it is to assemble a list of the league’s best power forwards (or PFs masquerading as centers in the small-ball era).  Kevin Love is the only one yet to be named and that deserves more scrutiny, but in the last 10 spots alone Garnett, Aldridge, Bosh, Gasol, Griffin, and finally Nowitzki have come off the board.  The difference between those guys – with the possible exception of Aldridge – is razor thin, and a case could be made for each that they deserve consideration as that group’s best.  It’s truly splitting hairs at this point, though, and memories of June 2011 alone make Nowitzki as worthy or more than the rest.

10. Deron Williams, PG, Brooklyn Nets: Considered by many to be the NBA’s best point-guard just two or three seasons ago, a slew of new lead guard stars and Williams’ trade to the Nets made him a blip on the league’s recent radar.  That changed after last season when he was the most courted free agent available, and will change even more once this one kicks off and he’s officially the face of the Brooklyn Nets.

One of the game’s most well-rounded players, Williams struggles in nary an area.  He can play the role of scorer, distributor, and defender as well as most depending on the need of his team, and with the depleted Nets in 2011 and 2012 it was the former.  So while his shooting and assist numbers dipped considerably last season, it’s not necessarily indicative of any sustained decline; more so that he was surrounded by the last ragtag group New Jersey fans ever had the “pleasure” of watching.  That’s hardly the case in 2012, as Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King were the offseason’s biggest aggressors is resigning Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez and making a shocking trade for Joe Johnson.  So Williams has help this season, and it will be a welcome sight to see him play the way he was meant to as more of an overall creator.

The “problem” with Williams – and it’s a relative one, obviously – is that he lacks the singular trait(s) that makes the league’s other top point-guards so great: Nash’s shooting, Rondo’s vision, Westbrook’s explosiveness, Paul’s genius.  Williams doesn’t have that truly elite skill but that hardly matters.  His game isn’t always flashy (though he does this on occasion) but it’s always effective, and enough to warrant his inclusion among the NBA’s 10 best players.

9. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder: The league’s most divisive talent deserves better than this, and it doesn’t take more than this to realize that.  With the slightest hint of projection in mind, it’s easy to imagine Westbrook will merit an unmovable place among basketball’s top quartet of James, Durant, Paul, and Howard.  It’s a small injustice he’s ranked below players like Bryant, Love, and Rose, and there’s a case to be made he’s already better than Wade, too.

The basketball world’s infatuation with the length and shot-making of his more heralded teammate has more than anything to do with the narrative that Wesbtrook can’t seem to shake: he’s not a point-guard, takes too many shots, and can’t coexist with Durant.  As little as several months ago there were many clamors for Oklahoma City to trade him, and before that consternation at his well-earned extension worth the maximum.  With a bit of improvement Westbrook will firmly hush those same critics; he’s clearly still developing the mental side of his game, and even at this cocooned stage he’s one of its most brilliant and effective players.

Imagine if Westbrook – 23 and in his fifth year ever playing point-guard, mind you – hones his three-pointer, learns the finer points of defense, or gains patience and overall understanding on the other end.  Just how much better will he be than he is now? Considering those are glaring deficiencies in his current game, warts just as or more visible than those of any other player similarly ranked, the answer is much, much better.  As in top three player in the league better.  Westbrook isn’t quite there yet, but he’s already better than two players ranked ahead of him (Bryant and Love), healthier than his closest contemporary (Rose), and perhaps already another’s equal (Wade).  And by this time next year, the rankings will show it.