The NBA’s Best Players… It’s A Numbers Game
Well, it’s a numbers game.
As a stat guy, I shouldn’t let a relatively small sample size trump the findings of a large sample size—especially if that large sample size embodies—well, everything.
However, with the NBA Playoffs, that’s exactly what stat geeks have to do. As much as we want to take into account an 82-game season, the fact is, players and teams change the way they play in the playoffs, making much of the stats collected during the regular worthless.
Because of that, the end of a postseason has more of an effect on the NBA landscape than it does in any other major sports league. Case and point: LeBron James. Entering the playoffs, I thought he was the best player in the NBA. Now I don’t know if LeBron James is the best player on his team. His shaky performance in just six games was so staggering against the height of NBA competition that I have to change my opinion of where he ranks as a player.
How much so though?
Here are the top 10 players in the NBA:
1. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Call me crazy. Call me irrational. Call me stupid. But don’t call me out of line here. You know and I know that one of the many questions about LeBron’s move to the Miami Heat was whether or not he would remain the best player on his own team. But the regular season nipped that thought in the bud, as LeBron James finished well ahead of Dwyane Wade in the NBA 2011 MVP Vote.
However, once the NBA Playoffs rolled around, it was a different story. All of a sudden, Wade was gaining on LeBron. The lowly Philadelphia 76ers aside, Wade had a great series against the Boston Celtics, while LeBron James closed them out. LeBron James basically took care of the Chicago Bulls himself, but Wade was the man in the NBA Finals. When it was all said and done though, LeBron failed to be “LeBron” when the game was on the line in fourth quarter of the championship round.
While most people like to say that each of the first three quarters matter as much as the fourth quarter, the fact is that much of basketball comes down to whose hands you want the ball in for the final 5 minutes of the game. Not within the final minute. Not in the last ten seconds. Not the final shot. For me, the best basketball players are the ones that do a variety of things for your team throughout the final 5 minutes of a game. The entirety of that final five minutes gives us a better idea of how a player plays in the clutch. The way those other “clutch” scenarios play out are a mere result of luck, and any judgment from those random moments is irrational and nonsensical.
In the 2011 NBA Finals, LeBron James faded in the fourth quarter on basketball’s biggest stage. You can’t be the basketball player if you can’t impose your talent when it counts. In the Finals, we saw Wade, Jason Terry, and of course, Dirk Nowitzki produce in the fourth quarter and make plays in the final five minutes that led their teams to victory. Removing Terry from this equation, as good as Nowitzki was, he was no more efficient than Wade in the Finals, and he only plays one side of the ball. Thus, for the second time in his career, Wade was the best player in the Finals after already being among the top 3 players in the league. So without further adieu, I now anoint Dwyane Wade as the best player in the NBA.
As for the rest of the list, here is how it all pans out.
2. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
Dwight Howard should have been the MVP this past season. He was the best defensive player in the league, and he was one of the most efficient offensive players. Without him, the Orlando Magic would have looked like the Golden State Warriors—at best. His improved offensive game (he averaged more points this season than he ever has) helped elevate him above LeBron James for now. If he continues to develop, he can stay ahead of LeBron for the time-being.
3. LeBron James, Miami Heat
Sorry, LeBron, you just weren’t clutch enough. I suppose if you had shown up in the fourth quarters of the NBA Finals, you would still be #1 in my book. Remember all of those “Kobe vs. LeBron” articles we ran? We gave you the nod every time. While we still “might” take you over Kobe, it’s pretty clear that you’re not even the lead dog on your own team anymore.
4. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets
Chris Paul bounced back nicely this year, and for a second, the Hornets looked like they would be a threat in the West. Still, he needs way more help. Did you see the scrubs he was playing with? Put Paul alongside someone who can actually shoot better than he can, and he my shoot up this list in no time.
5. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
I will admit it; statistically, I’m down on Kobe Bryant. He has shown signs of deterioration for a long time now, and these injuries only demonstrate what age can do to you. However, emotionally, I think he may bounce back. He doesn’t need a surgery and he didn’t play 100 games this season. Maybe he can make a comeback and surpass of some of his perimeter brethren. The numbers, however, suggest he won’t. That said, he’s still better than the guy that knocked him out of the NBA playoffs this past season.
6. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
Let’s not jump to conclusions. Dirk was the best player in the NBA throughout the playoffs, but he’s not the best player in the NBA. As I mentioned, statistically, he was outplayed by Dwyane Wade, who went through an injury. And I can’t rank Dirk ahead of guys who can affect the game defensively in a way that Nowitzki wasn’t capable of doing in middle school. Even if this were purely an offensive contest, the only person I could move Dirk ahead of is Dwight Howard, and even that’s close.
7. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Durant is a beast, but he only has one gear. Unfortunately for him, the Dallas Mavericks shut that gear down. He’ll have to learn from Dirk how to stop little guys from taking him out of his game. And he does take a play out of Dirk’s playbook, he should come back with a much more varied offensive game and have his best season ever, just like Dirk did after being embarrassed in the 2006 NBA Finals, coming back to win the MVP in 2007.
8. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
No, Rose did not deserve the MVP. He shouldn’t have even been second, third or fourth. Listen, he’s a great player, top 10 as you can see, but he’s not that efficient and he doesn’t play much defense. He’s Allen Iverson in his prime, maybe a little better, but Iverson at his greatest was never LeBron, Wade or Howard.
9. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies
This may seem like an overreaction to Randolph’s play during the NBA 2011 Playoffs, but it’s not. Randolph’s numbers suggest he is the second best big man in the league. Yes, he’s not that great at defense, but he was so damn efficient his past season and he rebounds like crazy on a team with a bunch of good rebounders. Pau Gasol would be here, but he disappeared in the postseason. Amare Stoudemire would be head of him as well, but he plays no defense and doesn’t rebound. And believe it or not, I’d rank Tim Duncan ahead of him as well, if it weren’t for the fact that Randolph’s offensive game has a higher ceiling from game to game than Duncan’s does right now.
10. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Westbrook might actually be better than Derrick Rose. Yeah, I said it. If he weren’t sharing the spotlight with Kevin Durant, who knows what his numbers would be. Hell, he already approximates Rose’s production. It’s just a mater of whether or not Westbrook could carry the load every night like that. He certainly showed that he wanted to during the regular and post seasons, as his usage-rate significantly hurt Durant’s chances at an MVP season. But if this guy grows up this off-season and learns how and when to be aggressive, there may come a time next year when the media realizes either Rose isn’t the best point guard in the league or that Westbrook is every bit as good as Rose.
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