Now on to part 3 of my top 80 countdown, players 40-21. Be sure to check back tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion. Quick reminder:
- Age and contract are not factored in—the question is simply how much do I like each player for this season
- To qualify, players must have played at least one game in the league last season (sorry Andrei Kirilenko) and be on a current NBA roster
- And, again, no rookies (Anthony Davis will not be on this list)
- Why top 80? Because I felt like it
40) Al Jefferson, C, Utah
A physical, Jefferson is finally getting back to his pre-injury form. Dynamic with his back to the basket and developing a face-up game to go with it. Was 12th in PER last season and the 11 guys ahead of him are all top 20 on this list. Jefferson may be there soon.
39) Demarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento
One of the great untapped potentials in the league. Just about the biggest body in the NBA and was top 20 in PER last year—just ahead of Dirk. Unfortunately, he simply cannot stay focused, on or off the court, and has not shown any desire to listen to teammates or coaches.
38) Ricky Rubio, G, Minnesota
A shame he got injured last year, was really starting to captivate the league. The Spanish sensation sees 3 and 4 moves ahead on the offensive end, and appeared to be less of a liability on defense then expected. Very small sample size to base this ranking off of, which makes it one of my riskier ones, but all early returns were positive.
37) Eric Gordon, G, New Orleans
Struggled with injury last year, but Hornets improved markedly and immediately one he returned. Looks to attack the rim every chance he gets, and a threat to go for 30 each and every night. Solid defender and willing passer—the last point is rare for young off-guards.
36) Joe Johnson, G, Brooklyn
Just because he has the worst contract in the league doesn’t mean he’s bad, right? Right? I still think JJ can be only of the league’s top 2-guards, and he has all the weapons to do so. Needs to prove he can be a leader for a championship-level team, and he has been getting old fast. But for the first time in awhile Johnson should be playing with a chip on his shoulder, which I expect will pay dividends.
35) Andre Igoudala, G/F, Denver
34) Rudy Gay, G/F, Memphis
Two premier wings who have often been compared to each other, and for good reason. Gay is more offensive minded (better jump shot), while Igoudala focuses on the defensive end (better on ball defender), but in many ways these two are mirror images. I give the slight edge to Gay, but both are explosive, playmaking wings who like to attack on both ends of the ball and lead dark-horse finals contenders.
33) Amare Stoudemire, F, New York
Contract is too big and a lot of times he is more style than substance, but still a undeniable force. Injury risks are concerning, but I think this is a classic case of a guy being so overrated by so many people (none of them in New York, of course) that he becomes underrated. Amare doesn’t have too much of a post up game, but his face-up moves are fantastic and his stroke has improved. Effort on defense is, like so many top scorers, hit or miss.
32) Marc Gasol, F/C, Memphis
One of the most improved players on Earth in the last couple seasons, it’s unfortunate that the younger Gasol got in foul trouble in the Gold Medal game this summer, as we would have learned a lot about him. But for the most part Gasol’s secret is out: he is a top 5 center on both sides of the ball, and is as tough as they come. Embraces contact almost too much sometimes and it can lead to him forcing shots, but in general Marc is a fantastic passer from the post and is only improving.
31) Stephen Curry, G, Golden State
A little admitted bias here, as Steph has been a favorite of mine since his days at Davidson. But he is still the best in the league at basketball’s most important skill—shooting. Curry is as pure as it gets, and his biggest problem so far in his career has been staying on the court. Curry’s quick and consistent release allows him to get his shot off even with bigger defenders pressed up on him. I don’t think point guard will ever come naturally to Curry, but he makes all the right passes and doesn’t force shots like shooters of his type generally do.
30) Joakim Noah, C, Chicago
During his time at Florida, I wasn’t sure how Noah would be able to impact games at the NBA level. Well I was wrong, and Noah will have a long, successful career from his defense alone. A top 3 defensive center, Noah always puts himself in the right position and despite not being the quickest big man, he rotates incredibly on the defensive end. His presence inside is the main reason the Bulls have had the league’s top defense over the past few seasons.
29) Serge Ibaka, F, Oklahoma City
Hard to believe Ibaka doesn’t have springs in his shoes. He can jump out of the gym, and the scariest part is he’s hardly learned how to be a basketball player yet. The effects of this can been seen every now and then: Serge sometimes forces shots and tries to do too much (see: 2012 Finals) while getting himself out of position on defense in an effort to make the huge block. Once Ibaka learns some patience and gains more experience, watch out.
28) Manu Ginobili, G, San Antonio
27) James Harden, G/F, Houston
These two love to work inside-out, attacking the rim from all kinds of crazy angles and using the threat of the drive to set up their perimeter jump shot, which can win games by itself. Harden is younger and more explosive, while Manu is the perfect combination of old and young: he has the experience but has also not lost that devastating first step.
26) Al Horford, F/C, Atlanta
Another guy who’s consistency has caused fans to forget about him, Horford commands a double team almost every time down the court. He is big enough to power through most defenders if he catches the ball deep in the post, and has range out to almost 20 feet. Defensively he is solid—not going to make any highlight films, and doesn’t really get off the ground, but he is solid muscle and quicker than most big men.
25) Kyrie Irving, G, Cleveland
Obviously wish I could rank him number 1 right now, but it may only be a matter of time. Had just about the best rookie season ever, surpassing his most popular comparison, Chris Paul. Kyrie has developed the lost art of the mid-range jump shot to the point where it is automatic, but never let’s that distract from his primary offensive focus: get to the rim and set up himself or a teammate. And he has all the intangibles: focus, toughness and an incredible learning curve, plus a sense of humor. All of this spells trouble for the rest of the league for years to come.
24) Tyson Chandler, C, New York
The best defensive big man in the league settles comfortably at number 24 on my list. Chandler finishes strong around the basket, and is a constant force in both on-ball and help-side defense. He blocks or alters countless shots around the rim and has tremendously improved his basketball IQ during his career. Chandler alone makes a god-awful Knicks defense decent by himself, and is as steady as they come. He won’t be moving up this list, but won’t move down it anytime soon either.
23) Blake Griffin, LA Clippers
22) Josh Smith, F, Atlanta
High-flying athletes who can dominate the league when they so choose with unguardable matchup advantages, and both have a nose for the rim on offense and the ball on defense. Both also have something to prove in terms of making winning plays, and they occasionally decide they are point guards, over dribbling and hurting their teams’ offensive flow with poor shot selection. Smith is older, but for the next few years both will only keep getting better, and both will be top 20 soon.
21) Kevin Garnett, F/C, Boston
Can’t put KG any lower for fear he’d come after me. Certainly not the player he once was, but Garnett’s not that far off, either. Off the charts in every intangibles category, and if anything he can get too intense. Deadly from 20 feet out, still attacks the glass, and is usually in his opponent’s head from the opening tip. Some people may be starting to sleep on KG; don’t say I didn’t warn you…