The NBA season is underway and there have already some highlights and even some lowlights (the injuries to Russell Westbrook and Julius Randle). There is plenty of intrigue as players attempt to make an impact on a new team while others are trying to fill the shoes left by departing stars. Some are trying to regain their status as the game’s elite while others are trying to prolong their already hall of fame worthy careers.
This is a look at the best 50 players in the NBA today.
50. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers: After being a key piece on a team that made back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, Hibbert will have to carry much more of the load with the departure of Lance Stephenson and the injury to Paul George. He will need to be much more aggressive on the offensive end while continuing his great defensive play for the Pacers to have any shot at making the playoffs. Those added responsibilities will allow him to improve his numbers drastically from a season ago.
49. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz: Hayward spent most of his time in ’13-14 playing the shooting guard spot for the struggling Jazz, but showed enough (16.2 points, 5.2 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 77 games) to get a max contract to return to Utah. The plus for Hayward is that he should be a better fit in the new Jazz system, which will give him a much better shot to earn that contract for a rebuilding team.
48. Josh Smith, Detroit Pistons: Smith is one of the most athletic players in the league and someone who can do a little bit of everything on the floor when he gets it rolling (career averages of 15.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists 2.1 blocks and 1.3 steals a game). Now that he has had a year with the Pistons, look for him to boost his shooting numbers (a career-low 41.9 percent in ’13-14) and help push Detroit into playoff contention.
47. Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers: Batum is a very efficient wing player (56.6 percent shooting from 2-point range, according to Basketball-reference.com) on the offensive end on the floor and an even better defender. After the best season of his young career in ’13-14 (13 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists), helped the Blazers to a second round trip to the playoffs there is no doubt that he will be even better this season.
46. Joe Johnson, Brooklyn Nets: With so many weapons surrounding him in Brooklyn, Johnson hasn’t been asked for the same kind of production since he left Atlanta, but he still has the ability to play at an all-star level. In fact, he made his seventh all-star game in eight years in 2013-14 after he averaged 15.8 points a game. With a new coach and a new system, look for Johnson to have an even better year in 2014-15.
45. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards: In two seasons, Beal has proved to be one of the best young wing scorers in the league (17.1 points per game). He has is a great outside shooter (40.2 percent from 3-point range), who has given the Wizards exactly what they need to play along side John Wall. Look for Beal to be more aggressive off the bounce and to become an all-star level player in year three.
44. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies: Conley is one of the best two-way point guards in the league. On the defensive side of the floor, he is a solid on-ball defender who can also make plays in the passing lanes (1.5 steals per game in 2013-14). Where he has made the most strides in his game has been on the offensive end, where he has improved his shooting (a career-best 45 percent) even though his field goal attempts have gone up. He isn’t the greatest facilitator in the league (six assists per game in ’13-14), but he does know how to find players like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on the block and give them space to go to work.
43. Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets: Lawson is one of the most underrated players in the league. He made vast improvements to his game in 2013-14, including his ability to get to the paint and draw contact (a career-high 6.5 free-throw attempts per game) and create good looks for others (8.8 assists). With his added aggressiveness, he also set a career-high in scoring with 17.6 points a night even though he attempted only 13 shots a game.
42. Kenneth Faried, Denver Nuggets: Faried made huge strides over the summer as a member of Team USA. He showed that he could be much more than a glue guy because of his work ethic and tenacity when going to the glass (8.6 rebounds a game last year). He is also a fierce finisher in the paint (54.5 percent from the floor in ’13-14), and a great defensive presence.
41. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors: Lowry had a breakout season for the Raptors in 2013-14 and earned himself a big new contract along the way. Lowry is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league and a great floor general. In his second season in Toronto, He set career highs in scoring (17.9 points per game), 3-point percentage (38 percent) and assists (7.4 assists per game). Now that he is under contract with the Raptors for the next four seasons, expect Lowry to get even better.
40. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets: Williams had his worst season in the league in 2013-14 since his rookie year (14.3 points and 6.1 assists). Now that Shaun Livingston and Jason Kidd have moved on, don’t expect that to happen again. Although Williams isn’t the kind of dominant player he once was, he still has plenty left in the tank to get back to all-star form. For the Nets to make a push in the Eastern Conference, that is exactly what he will need to do.
39. Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks: Ellis is great off the dribble because he has a solid mid range game and can get to the rim as quickly as anyone in the game this side of Russell Westbrook. He was a great fit in his first year in Dallas (19 points and 5.7 assists per game) as he helped the Mavericks return to the playoffs. With a newly rebuilt roster in 2014-15, look for him to be even better as he takes on even more responsibility as a facilitator with the departure of Jose Calderon.
38. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns: The Suns saw enough in just 43 games to lock him up with a long-term deal in the off-season and for good reason. He is an explosive young guard with as much upside as any guard in the league. In his limited time with Phoenix in ’13-14, he showed the ability to score the ball, 17.7 points per game, get to the glass (4.7 rebounds per game and find the open man (5.5 assists). He is also a terrific defender because of his quickness. With a year under his belt with Jeff Hornacek look for Bledsoe to continue to get better this time around.
37. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors: DeRozan had his best season in 2013-14 playing next to Kyle Lowry when he averaged a career-high 22.7 points a night. That earned DeRozan his first trip to the all-star game. He was also good enough to earn a spot on Team USA for the World Cup beating out the likes of Bradley Beal, Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward along the way. With the added international experience and the return of Lowry, expect another huge year for DeRozan.
36. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors: Thompson isn’t the most well-rounded player on the list, But he just may be the best pure shooter of the bunch. He has a smooth stroke from the outside (41.7 percent from 3-point range) and an excellent midrange game. After a solid season, he had a good summer as the main weapon coming off the bench for Mike Krzyzewski and Team USA. During that time, he showed that he is more than willing to take and make the big shot. With that added confidence, Thompson will have an even better season in ’14-15.
35. Lance Stephenson, Charlotte Hornets: After playing four seasons with the Indiana Pacers where he showed a great deal of progress, Stephenson earned a big contract to play for the up-an-coming Charlotte Hornets. In his new situation, he should have more opportunities on the offensive end of the floor (11.2 field goal attempts per game in ’13-14, according to Basketball-reference.com). With more chances to thrive offensively and some nice pieces surrounding him (namely Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker), look for Stephenson to have his best season by far on offense to go along with some outstanding defense.
34. Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings: Gay has been one of the best wing scorers in the game and ’13-14 was no different. In fact, he had one of his most productive campaigns after landing in Sacramento when he averaged 20.1 points on 48.2 percent shooting from the floor, including 51.6 percent from inside the arc and 83.6 percent from the free-throw line in 55 games, according to Basketball-reference.com. Now that the Kings have more of a pass-first point guard to facilitate the offense, look for those numbers to improve even more.
33. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks: Millsap was asked to do a great deal in his first season in Atlanta with the early season loss of Al Horford. He delivered with averages of 17.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists to carry the Hawks to the playoffs and earn his first trip to the all-star game. With the return of Horford, Millsap will have some help carrying the load and should give him more space to work.
32. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies: Even though Randolph has been in the league for well over a decade, he is still one of the best rebounding (10.1 per game last year) and scoring (17.4 points per game in ’13-14) power forwards in the game. For the Grizzlies to make another playoff appearance, he will need to put up those same kind of numbers as the first option in Memphis.
31. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat: LeBron James passed the torch back to Wade when he decided to return to the Cavaliers and there is no way that Wade will let it distinguish without a fight. Although he has been limites by injuries the last few years, he is still one of premier perimeter players in the game. The 10-time all-star will need to carry much more of the load with the Heat and he still has enough left to do it.
30. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies: Gasol will be the key to the success for the Memphis Grizzlies in a tough Western Conference. He is one of the best two-way centers in the NBA today. He can score in the paint and in the mid-range. He can also create open shots for his teammates with the ability to pass out of the double team. As good as he is on the offensive end, he is better on defense for the simple fact that he is always in the right place.
29. Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns: The development of Dragic was a huge reason why the Suns narrowly missed the playoffs in 2013-14. He fit in perfectly in Jeff Hornacek’s system and carried Phoenix much farther than anyone could have imagined. Where he made the biggest improvements was in the shooting game where he shot career highs from the floor (50.5 percent), the 3-point line (40.8 percent), and inside the arc (54.2 percent). Those impressive shooting numbers added up to a career-high in scoring (20.3 points per game).
28. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls: After a remarkable season that saw him win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year and earn all-NBA first-team, much less will be asked of Noah this time around with the addition of Pau Gasol and the return of Derrick Rose. Noah is the ultimate glue guy who can do a little bit of everything on the floor. He is a presence in the lane on defense who can block shots and hit the glass. He also does a great job in the offensive rebounding department to go along with his exceptional ability to pass the ball.
27. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks: After a tremendous start to his NBA career, Horford has been sidelined with injuries the last few seasons. If he can return to form, he will once again place his name among the game’s elite front court performers. He is very balanced offensively with the ability to hit the 15-foot jumper as well as finish around the rim. He also does work on the defensive end because of his ability to rebound and block shots.
26. Al Jefferson, Charlotte Hornets: Jefferson would be much higher on this list if he had the ability to play any kind of defense. Although he is improved in that area, he doesn’t have the natural athleticism to hang with the most athletic players in the NBA today. Where he does excel is on the offensive end where he has the biggest array of post moves in the game. In fact, his remarkable post moves and ability to hit the glass where the main reasons why he finished last season as the all-NBA third-team center in ’13-14.
25. John Wall, Washington Wizards: After back-to-back impressive seasons and a nice playoff run in 2014, there is no doubt that Wall is one of the elite lead guards in the game today. He can get to the rim as quick as anyone in the game, find the open man (a career-high 8.8 assists per game in ’13-14) and has made huge strides with his outside shooting (35.1 percent 3-point shooting). Those numbers were good enough to make his first all-star game appearance. After the fine season, he spent time trying out with Team USA for the World Cup in the summer before he got cut. The fact that he didn’t make the team just may be incentive enough for him to take another step forward this time around.
24. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs: Following a solid regular season that saw Leonard average career highs in points (12.8), field goal percentage (52.2), rebounds (6.2) and assists (two), he exploded on the scene in the last three games of the NBA Finals to earn the MVP and plenty of national recognition. During that stretch, he put up 23.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, two steals and two blocks against the likes of LeBron James. With such a confidence boosting performance, look for Leonard to have an even better season in the season to come.
23. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings: After putting up solid numbers in his first few years in the league, Cousins took a huge step forward in last year once he figured it out where he could be the most effective. While he has a decent face-up game, he is at his best when he gets deep post position because of his ability to finish around the rim. he is also a beast in on the glass because of his size and strength. With a more pass-happy team this season, he should be even better as the Kings try to make a run at the playoffs.
22. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: Lillard falls into the exact same camp as Wall. He made his first all-star game in 2013-14, earned the chance to try out for Team USA, and then got cut. That will no doubt add to the motivation that Lillard already had to be one of the best. That will cause nightmares for opposing guards since he is already one of the most clutch players in the league. He loves the spotlight and is more than willing to take and make the big shot.
21. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers: With the departures of plenty of big-name players from Team USA, it was Irving who took over the reins and led the Americans to an unblemished record on their way to another Gold Medal in International play. After playing such a big role with a solid cast of players, it will be interesting to see if the two-time all-star can take a secondary role in Cleveland after the additions of LeBron James and Kevin Love in the offseason. One thing is for sure however, the arrival of James will open up plenty of clean looks for Irving and he is ready to knock them down.
20. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics: Rondo was limited much of last season coming off a brutal knee injury and his game reflected that. He appeared in just 30 games and was much less effective than usual. He didn’t attack the rim like in years past and settled far too often for the outside shot. Now that he is back up to speed, don’t expect the same results. He is still one of the best passers in the game and a great floor general. His improved health will also help on the defensive side of the ball where he has great hands (1.9 steals per game for his career).
19. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks: Nowitzki is the leader of a retooled Mavericks squad looking to make a bigger splash in the Western Conference race this season. Even though he doesn’t score the way he used to, Nowitzki can still stretch an opposing defense with his ability to shoot the ball from the outside and fill it up from all over the floor.
18. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder: Ibaka has evolved from a shot blocker early in his career to one of the most gifted big men in the league. He can hit the offensive glass, score in the paint, and even step out and make a jumper. For the Thunder to have success without Kevin Durant, Ibaka needs to be more aggressive on offense while still playing at the same high level.
17. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs: His numbers may go down as San Antonio will continue to limit is minutes, but that won’t limit his effectiveness when he’s on the floor. Duncan is that special kind of athlete who knows how to step up when it matters most. He can still work the block on offense as good as any big man in the league and create contact. He is the heart and soul of defending championship Spurs team and will be until he retires.
16. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls: Finding the right spot for Rose on this list is very difficult considering he has missed most of the last two seasons with various knee injuries. But after watching his explosiveness on Team USA, it is clear that he is right near the MVP form that he showed in 2010-11. When he is right, Rose is one of the prime scorers in the game because of his ability to blow by his defender off the bounce. Once he gets into the paint, he is nearly unstoppable because of how well he finishes at the rim.
15. Chris Bosh, Miami Heat: The departure of LeBron James may not be a great thing for the Miami Heat, but it will do wonders for how effective Chris Bosh is. During his first four years with the Heat, he had been relegated to nothing more than a spot up shooter so that James and Dwyane Wade had space to maneuver going to the basket. With James gone and Wade no longer the kind of athlete he used to be, Bosh will be the one to carry the load as Miami tries to make another run in the Eastern Conference.
14. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets: After a year getting adjusted to playing in a new system with a new go-to guy, Howard should be much better this year with the Rockets. He is reminiscent of the old school type of NBA center. He does most of his work on offence with his back to the basket because of his brute strength and ability to finish at the rim. On defense, he is a rebounding and shot-blocking force because of his athleticism.
13. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: One of the best pure shooters in the game today, Curry has also showed that he can be a great lead guard. He is just coming into his prime after a banner year in 2013-14 and a Gold Medal with Team USA in the World Cup. What sets Curry apart from the other great guards is his ability to stretch the floor. He has led the league in 3-point attempts and makes the last two years (533-of-1,215). That opens up plenty of lanes for him to put the ball on the floor and create open shots for his teammates (8.5 assists in 2013-14) and to get to the rim and draw fouls (a career-high 4.5 free-throw attempts per game).
12. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers: After years of being the man on a bad team, Love has the chance to be a secondary option on a championship contender. With so many other high-level players in Cleveland there is no doubt that he wont put up the same stat lines that he did in Minnesota (26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists in ’13-14), but he will play for a winner.
11. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: He dropped a few spots because of his injury, but still will have an exceptional season once he is healthy again. Westbrook is the best of the new style of point guards who can score (21.8 points per game in 2013-14) as well as they can run an offense (6.9 assists per game). He is at his best when he puts the ball on the floor and attacks the rim. That leads to plenty of highlight dunks and even more free-throw opportunities (6.4 attempts in 2013-14). His athleticism also makes him a solid rebounder (5.7 rebounds per game in ’13-14) and defender.
10. James Harden, Houston Rockets: Harden has one of the most effective offensive games of any player in the NBA. He has nice outside touch, can take even the best defenders off the dribble and draws an unreal amount of fouls (665 free-throw attempts in 73 games in ’13-14), because of his creativity. Even with a next-level offensive game, the reason he doesn’t land at the No. 1 spot is because he struggles on the defensive side of the floor. Neither of those things will change this year as the Rockets will try to make it out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
9. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks: Anthony has a new coach, a new offense and a new chance to shine in New York after signing a big contract to stay with the Knicks in the offseason. Whether the Knicks struggle as a team or find success in the new system, he will still put up huge offensive numbers while trying to propel New York back to the playoffs.
8. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: Bryant appeared in only six games in ’13-14 and finished with just 13.8 points, 6.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 5.7 turnovers a night before his season ended in December. Dont expect him to repeat that kind of output now that he is healthy. The 16-time all-star has far too much drive and determination to let that happen. While he may not return to the form he had two years ago (27.3 points, 6 assists and 5.6 rebounds in 78 games), he will still put up great numbers as the Lakers try to rebound from a very tough year.
7. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers: After a great regular season in ’13-14, Aldridge showed that he could be one of the elite scorers in the game in the Blazers run to the second round of the playoffs. In two road wins over the Houston Rockets to start the first round, he scored a combined 89 points to go along with 26 rebounds and five blocks. If he can carry that success into this year, he will be one of the toughest guards in the game.
6. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs: Parker didn’t have the most impressive statistical regular season (16.7 points and 5.7 assists), thanks to reduced minutes, but reminded everyone why the Spurs have rings when playoff time came around. Parker has a deadly midrange game and the ability to shake even the best of defenders of the dribble. Add in the fact that he loves to take the big shot and you can see why the Spurs are looking for their fifth ring with him at the helm.
5. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: Griffin continues to take steps to become more of a complete player. Even though he can still attack the rim and finish with the best in the game, he can also knock down the occasional jumper and even make a free-throws. He is also a solid rebounder (9.5 rebounds a game in ’13-14) and a skilled passer who will only get better in another year under Doc Rivers.
4. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: With the trade for Omer Asik in the summer, Davis will have the chance to spend most of the season at his more natural power forward spot this season. After a solid rookie season, he emerged as a prime time player for the Pelicans in his second year. He averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.8 blocks. With more talent surrounding him, including a healthy back court of Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday, Davis will be able to show off even more skills.
3. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers: Paul isn’t the most athletic guy on this list, but he still has all of the skills to carry the title as the best point guard in the league. He is more of a pass-first point guard (a league-leading 10.7 assists per game last season) than everyone on this list (except Rondo), but he can still can put points up on the board when called upon (19.1 points per game in 2013-14). He is also an exceptional defender (all-defensive first-team each of the last three seasons) and team leader.
2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: The decision between who is No. 1 and No. 2 on this list was made much easier by the fact that Durant will miss the opening weeks of the season after suffering an injury. But injury or not, he is one of the best two players in the world thanks to his ability to score anywhere on the floor (50.3 percent shooting from the floor, including 39.1 percent from beyond the arc and 87.3 percent from the free-throw line). Durant has also elevated his stature to MVP level with his ever improving ability to pass the ball (a career-high 5.5 per game in ’13-14).
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers: Following two championship rings and four consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals, he returned home in the off-season to try to provide his home town with a long sought after title. Although he brought plenty of help along with him, it will be up to James to get it done. After all, he is one of the two most complete players the NBA has seen since the departure of Michael Jordan thanks to his ability to score (27.5 career points per game), rebound (7.2 career rebounds per game), pass (6.9 career assists per game) and defend (five-time all-defensive first-team, according to Basketball-reference.com).