10: Goran Dragic- 20.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 51% FG, 42% 3PT, 76% FT
Maybe it’s fitting that the fairytale run that the Phoenix Suns are on this season is being spearheaded by a player nicknamed “The Dragon.” Goran Dragic has been a fun watch all season long and like some of the other honorable mention and Top Ten MVP candidates, he’s a serious candidate to win Most Improved Player of the Year. I won’t speak for the general NBA fan population, but I certainly didn’t have the Suns making any noise this year, other than the feint sound of a toilet flushing that pops into my head whenever I think about a team shamelessly tanking over the last two months of the year. There would be no flushing the season away on the watch of Goran Dragic, or Jeff Hornacek who is my pick for Coach of the Year.
9: James Harden- 25.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 46% FG, 37% 3PT, 87% FT
I have to admit, it can be a challenging task to watch Harden play basketball on a nightly basis. If you can make it through the endless number of isolation possessions, late shot clock heaves, flops so egregious that soccer players are envious and frequent trips to the free throw line, while also turning your head away from the TV screen whenever he is playing defense, you’ll find that he’s actually very fun to watch! Harden’s skill set may be a bit maddening to anyone but Rockets fans, but nobody can deny how vital he is to the success of the Houston Rockets. Houston’s offense is among the highest scoring in the league and Harden’s iso-game is oddly enough the catalyst of it. Whatever, if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it, right? Just because I don’t find Harden’s game aesthetically pleasing that doesn’t mean I should push him back further in the rankings—this becomes an interesting conundrum when I rank the Top 50 Players in the NBA each off-season.
8: Dirk Nowitkzi- 21.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 50% FG, 40% 3PT, 90% FT
Dirk delivered once again, leading a relatively mediocre Mavericks squad to nearly 50 wins. What can you say about the big German? Somehow even after fifteen years in the league Dirk has improved this year from last at least statistically, bumping his points per game average up four from last year. Along the way, he’s come through with a ton of big shots and vintage Dirk performances that make you wonder “is Dallas a dangerous draw in the postseason?” I’d argue yes. They certainly wouldn’t be a favorite in the 1st round if they were to get in, but there is still a fear factor when it comes to Dirk. On any given night he can be the best guy on the floor, even as he battles father time and young studs in the league.
7: Al Jefferson- 21.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, 51% FG, 69% FT
Lots of love to Big Al and the Bobcats. The relationship between the two sides started off as a curious and heavily criticized one, with many basketball fans left wondering what exactly Charlotte’s plans were both in the short-term and long-term, and also why Jefferson would sign with the lowly Bobcats. Well, both of those questions have been answered. The partnership between the soon-to-be Hornets and Jefferson has been a successful one. The Charlotte offense has been constructed around Jefferson and his treasure chest full of low post moves that are a throwback to the likes of McHale and Olajuwon, making him one of the most entertaining players in the league, at least from my perspective. On top of that, Jefferson has become a better defender than at any other point in his career, which isn’t saying a whole bunch given his defensive clout or lack thereof, but it does show his commitment to improving and winning in year ten of his career. He’s a legitimate late game-scoring assassin and the metaphorical heartbeat of an otherwise lifeless Bobcats offense.
6: Stephen Curry- 23.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 47% FG, 42% 3PT, 88% FT
The 2013 Playoff darling hasn’t regressed this year, becoming a better defender and passer while also doing all of the things that people love watching him do: bomb three’s, bomb more three’s, keep bombing three’s and get Oracle Arena all kinds of riled up. Even though the three point sharp shooter reputation is one that Stephen Curry deserves, it undermines his value to the Warriors. Experts would agree that Curry is building a strong reputation as one of the better ball-handlers, passers, unique finishers in the paint, and crunch-time scorers in the league. His individual statistics are actually favorable compared to Derrick Rose’s 2011 MVP campaign, but it’s the eye test that justifies Curry’s position on the list. Watch the Golden State Warriors play a few times and check out how quickly a normally fun offense becomes a dumpster fire when Curry checks out of the game. They can’t survive without him.
5: Chris Paul- 19.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 2.5 steals, 46% FG, 36% 3PT, 86% FT
4: Blake Griffin- 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 53% FG, 71% FT
The Los Angeles Clippers submit a duo of MVP candidates, each of whom could make a strong case to be rated over the other. Does the fact that they are teammates of each other hurt either of their rankings? Not in my book. Paul and Griffin are probably the best duo in the NBA today, and both worthy of top five MVP consideration even if their “value” is slightly diminished by the other.
A general rule of thumb: when you’re the undisputed “Best Point Guard Alive” and you submit one of your best seasons to date, it doesn’t matter if you miss 19 games over the course of the season… you can’t drop lower than number five on the MVP Power Rankings. I refuse to do it. Paul continues to be one of the toughest competitors in the game, playing with a pissed off edge and a chip on his shoulder every night. In all fairness, Paul has carried that attitude with him for nearly a decade now. It’s not exactly a new development. Still, it’s rare to see him take a night off or get bested by a rival point guard. Even though Blake Griffin comes in higher on MVP ballot than Paul, I’d still argue that Paul is the one that controls the Clippers postseason fate. Towards the end of close games, Paul is one of the great decision makers and cold-blooded killers in the league. I couldn’t say this about many guys, but Paul is one of the few in the league that I trust could go shot for shot with the likes of LeBron James or Kevin Durant in a do or die game.
While Paul is a finished product—and a damn fine one—his Lob City running mate Griffin continues to improve his game. The laundry list of improvements in Blake’s overall repertoire from last year to this year is endless. He’s increased the ways in which he can score the basketball, probably his greatest improvement to date. If you’re still under the belief that Blake Griffin is “just a dunker,” then you need to start watching a little more basketball. Griffin’s finally beginning to polish his offensive game and harness that crazy athleticism he’s been blessed with. His moves in the post are much more diverse, quick and yet still well-calculated. His touch outside of the paint continues to get better. He’s a willing and underrated passer, even showing off some ball-handling skills, leading fast breaks and throwing lobs. If you can somehow improve your basketball IQ, then Blake has done so. Credit that development to Doc Rivers and I’m sure to some degree Chris Paul as well.
3: Joakim Noah- 12.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.5 blocks, 48% FG, 73% FT
More on Joakim Noah on Wednesday.
2: LeBron James- 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 57% FG, 38% 3PT, 75% FT
What else would you expect from the game’s best player? Just another ho-hum season of all-around excellence and mind-boggling efficiency. It’s interesting to watch how LeBron James has evolved over time. In his early Cleveland days there was such a reliance on otherworldly athleticism, and now it seems like that is a secondary part of LeBron’s skill set. It’s almost an afterthought. His game is much more cerebral and complete now than it ever has been, making it all the more fun to watch when he’s had to throw on his “Cleveland LeBron” cape, and that’s been more frequently than casual fans would realize. Even though it may not seem like it, LeBron has played more games without Dwyane Wade than Kevin Durant has without Russell Westbrook. The question of who is more valuable to their team is still that, a question. The question of who had the better season has a pretty clear-cut answer.
1: Kevin Durant- 31.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 51% FG, 40% 3PT, 87% FT
There has never been too much debate whether Kevin Durant is a different breed of scorer. That’s been known since—flipping calendar pages—2007, when Durant was a Texas Longhorn. Three scoring titles and a fourth one coming soon should be enough proof if you’ve missed out on the last seven years. If you’ve missed out on Durant’s 2013-14, I’m sympathetic for you. It’s been a complete and total tour de force for Durant, who has been playing with an icy eff-you edge all season long. Even though Durant’s scoring chops are well-documented and record breaking, it’s been the improvements he has made elsewhere that give him the edge over LeBron and every other player in the league this season. The 41 consecutive games with 25 or more points is a nice little chestnut and good justification for an MVP victory anyway, but it’s not quite as impressive as the strides Durant has made as a facilitator and defender. Not to sound like too much of a LeBron James fan, but there is a certain amount of all-around excellence that Durant has that has eluded him… until now. Dare I say that LeBron James’ place at the top of the NBA might not be quite as secure as it seemingly been in the past? I dare.