Training camps for the 2009-10 NBA season are about to begin. As we enter a new season, I would like to get the ball rolling with my Top 25 player prediction for this year. I computed last season’s accomplishments along with my thoughts on how they will perform this time. I already know a list like this one will have its disputes, but I assume that’s why we do lists. I must admit that LeBron and Kobe are apples and oranges, but in my opinion one of them is ahead by a millimeter. We have a couple of new players in the ranking and another player that fell out (Manu Ginobili). I did not rank Yao Ming because we don’t know if he will be playing this season, so with him I omitted a player that would be in the Top 10.
This will definitely be a competitive year and I expect this list to change come mid-season…
25. Ray Allen (24)
Ray had a very good year. He struggled at times in the playoffs, but in his defense he is better running off screens than spotting up. He had to stand a lot during the playoffs and he struggled at times because of it. Allen shot 4 percentage points above his career field-goal average last year. He averaged 18 points, shot 40 percent from behind the arc and nailed 92 percent of his free throws. Allen should flourish even more with Kevin Garnett back and the equally unselfish Rasheed Wallace on board.
24. Devin Harris
Speed kills and Harris has it. He jumps in at 24 and should be here to stay. Harris can get to the basket with the best of them and make his free throws at an 82 percent clip. Played only 69 games and shot a dismal 43 percent from the field, but I love his upside and I think he will flourish on a Nets team that will struggle all season. If Harris is not a Top 20 player this season, I will be disappointed.
23. Shaquille O’Neal (18)
Shaq had a great season last year in Phoenix although the Suns failed to advance to the playoffs. He was in tremendous shape and proved he can still flourish when in that condition. It will be interesting to see if he can duplicate it knowing the offense will not run through him like it did last year. I know he has his limitations on defense, but the Cavaliers have excellent perimeter defenders and his job will be much simpler than it was last year. LeBron will get him easy baskets, but the prevailing question is… Can he deal with getting out of King James’ way a majority of the time? That will be an issue on the court and in the locker room.
22. Danny Granger (23)
Granger has an old-school game in a new-school body. Takes what the defense gives him and makes you pay. 25 points per game and 87 from the line will give the Pacers a chance every night. Only played in 67 games last year and still put up crazy numbers. I would like to see his passing and defense improve before he moves into consistent All-Star category, but the Pacers have a player that will remind them of the scoring Reggie Miller left with.
21. Al Jefferson (25)
The best low-post ability in the game, when he is rolling he is virtually unguardable. The injury slowed him up, but it will not affect him because he plays below the rim. I believe he will become a better player because he will need to be more cerebral coming back from a season-ending injury. The Wolves unfortunately will still be bad for the next few years, but if Jefferson continues to grow as a player they will indeed have their cornerstone.
20. Kevin Durant
All I can say is, “League, watch out.” This young man can play and got better at a rapid pace with every game last year. George Gervin reincarnated with crazy range. At 20 years old, he poured in 25 points a game, shot 48 percent and grabbed almost 7 rebounds. He will be an All-Star the rest of his career and will flirt with the All-NBA team at season’s end. The one surprising aspect of his game that also has gotten much better is his defense. He should study film of ex NBA player Derrick McKey because he could become that type of defender before it’s over. The one area he needs to continue to grow in is leadership. He has a tendency to wander into his own world and forget about his teammates. He will move up on this list by mid-season and that’s a guarantee.
19. Steve Nash (22)
I have no idea why Nash has moved up three spots, but I suspect with the way the Suns will play again this year he will be higher come mid-season. For the third straight year he shot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line (a record). All due respect to Ray Allen, but Steve Nash is by far the best shooter in the game and has been for the last six years. Nash also still found time to average 9.7 assists a game. He is the consummate professional and a teammate’s dream because he has no prejudice when he steps on the court. If you get open, you get the ball.
18. Joe Johnson (16)
Johnson, a personal favorite of mine, has probably the best handle for his size next to LeBron and Kobe. I would definitely like to see him improve his low-post game because with his passing ability he would destroy opposing defenses with the shooters he has at his disposal. Numbers tend to go down in the playoffs, which has to concern both Joe and Mike Woodson. He averaged 5 fewer points in the playoffs and if the Hawks are to get to the semifinals again this year, he has to be dynamic in the second season. Six assists a game will go up with the addition of Jamal Crawford and Joe Smith.
17. Chauncey Billups (13)
The Denver Nuggets should have given him a huge bonus, because he made them a ton of extra money that they would not have seen had they stayed put. He automatically settled them down and made them think about Team instead of I. Billups is one of the best leaders in the game and definitely one of its best clutch players. He averaged 20 points in the postseason, but ended with a whimper against the Lakers – which probably had him working out extra hard this offseason. He needs to improve his shooting when they run him off the three-point line. He shot a dismal 41 percent from the field. I expect Billups numbers to continue to go down, thus allowing players like JR Smith to take more of the load along with Carmelo Anthony.
16. Paul Pierce (11)
They call him The Truth and he has proven up to the label for 11 seasons. Pierce is definitely the go-to scorer on the Celtics and one of the best clutch players in the league, especially in the playoffs. He has been the rock for this organization and I expect him to become one of the few players to start and finish his career with the same team. The one thing I would love to see is better conditioning. There is a part of me that always feels like Pierce has never been in the type of shape that could make him have a super season instead of the ho-hum normal 20 points per game. I guess that’s just a part of me that wants to see more because he is one of my favorite people and players in the league. Dropping him to 16th was more an age thing than production, but I expect him to explode again this season with the addition of Rasheed Wallace.
15. Brandon Roy (21)
Roy is a taller version Tony Parker. He has an uncanny ability to get to the basket despite defenses gearing up against him. He has very good all-around ability, but I cringe at how he squeezes the ball for much of the shot clock. It will be interesting to see if Andre Miller can keep the ball long enough to at least run the offense before Roy runs to it and goes one-on-one. I think that selfish part of his skills needs to change early in the game to allow teammates to gain a flow. He will find out that he would become much more potent, like Kobe has found out, when he plays more of a decoy early and becomes the assassin later. I anticipate Miller having a calming influence, allowing him to flow to a much better season. That’s why I moved him up six spots. He should improve on that 48 percent percentage and score in the 23-24 range, but be fresh in the fourth quarter.
14. Chris Bosh (10)
It’s time for Chris Bosh to show that he can put a team on his back or ask management to bring in a veteran star to help him along. Bosh averaged 22 points, but shot a disappointing 48 percent. He has to develop a better low-post game and help his team get better high-percentage shots. Every year he seems to be floating further and further away from the basket. He took 49 three-point shots last year and made 12. Bosh is more of a finesse player, but the idea of improving his three-point game is the wrong road to travel. Let’s hope he has beefed up somewhat and is willing to allow his teammates to take care of the outside game. His role is to be dominant in the paint. Most importantly, I want Bosh to make Shaq change the statement he made about him last year. He called Bosh the RuPaul of big men. Bosh did not deserve that description. Let’s see if he can make Shaq look like the old man of centers.
13. Deron Williams (19)
When healthy Williams, Chris Paul and Tony Parker are the best all-around point guards at this juncture. I expect Williams to move into the Top 10 after this season if he puts in a full healthy year. He is the strongest point guard in the league and one of the best at the pick-and-roll. He will never show his true offensive skills because the Jerry Sloan system will not allow it, but his all-around abilities will propel the Jazz towards another solid season. His numbers normally escalate during the playoffs, which tells us about the toughness and confidence he possesses.
12. Amare Stoudemire (17)
How can you go from 17 to 12 after missing the last 29 games with a dangerous eye injury? Two reasons come to mind… 1. When he came back from a micro fracture surgery, we wrote him off and he became All-NBA. 2. The Suns are going back to their 7 Seconds or Less offense and Amare will be playing center. Those two reasons along with the tremendous shape he has kept his body in will propel him back up the ladder. There is no player in the NBA at Amare’s size with the quickness and explosiveness that he possesses. I expect him to average 27 to 30 points a game and help Phoenix secure a bottom playoff position this season. Also remember this is his free agent year, so expect him to be highly motivated.
11. Carmelo Anthony (14)
Anthony is the most versatile offensive forward in the game. He is listed at 230 pounds, but don’t believe that number. Anthony is packing on 240-plus and still moves like a gazelle. He can score anywhere on the floor. I don’t like his shot selection and that is why he shot 44 percent last year, but don’t get it twisted because he is a matchup nightmare. He is the best offensive rebounder in the league playing small forward when he commits himself. His post-up ability brings double teams and when he is focused, he is a pretty good defender. The Nuggets just need more leadership from him and more consistency on the offensive end every night. He is their most talented player, but he is not their best player because of these inefficiencies. I am looking for Carmelo to put it all together this season and elevate his game all-around, which would mean the Nuggets could have a return engagement with the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
10. Pau Gasol (15)
Ok, I was wrong! I was not a big fan of the player I called the Poodle during the Celtic-Lakers Finals last year. He moves up five spots because he is the best fundamentally sound seven-footer in the league next to Tim Duncan. Gasol’s footwork is textbook and he has a great left hand that makes him virtually impossible to guard one-on-one. He showed me everything he had to in last year’s playoffs. He showed toughness, savvy, leadership and offensive consistency even when he did not touch the ball for minutes at a time. Kobe won without Shaq, but he would not have sniffed the Finals without Gasol. So I will retire the Poodle nickname and name him The Machine. The Lakers team already had that nickname for a player, but Sasha Vujacic doesn’t deserve it.
9. Tony Parker (9)
How can you be ranked number 9 and still be underrated? Will someone show me a player that can keep Parker out of the paint? Can anyone show me who finishes in traffic over bigger players more consistently at his size? I simply marvel at how good he has become in the pick-and-roll offense. There was once a time when teams would go under and dare him to shoot, but he has become a 50 percent shooter with an improved mid-range game. That improved skill will allow him to score 22 ppg consistently against anyone. Parker never gets the credit he deserves because of the greatness of Duncan, but he is the toughest player on the Spurs pound for pound without a doubt. This season might become his best because it seems as if Duncan has taken a back seat to the offensive prowess of Parker and seems content to let him shine. And shine he will.
8. Kevin Garnett (6)
When I first met Kevin Garnett, he took off his hat and said, “It’s an honor to meet you.” When I saw Garnett last year, he repeated that. Garnett is one the best leaders in sports and surprisingly always has been. I have even been guilty of being critical of his unselfishness. We will never be able to change that and I am so glad we as fans were not successful in doing so. He has been pass-first since he came into the league. He has at times deferred to players who were simple role players and at the same time ignored our bantering to shoot more. We watched him last year sit next to sweaty players in a custom-made suit on the Boston bench while he was injured. He did not isolate himself at the end of the bench. He was in the game even though he could not play and I noticed and respected him immensely for that. Who would not want to play with a superstar like him? He made Glen Davis cry last year during a game, but people don’t get fooled on why Davis was crying? I bet he cried because he was dressed down by a player that he respects to the highest level and he did not want to disappoint him. Garnett will come back with a vengeance and I expect the Celtics to return to championship form playing with the Big Ticket.
7. Dirk Nowitzki (12)
I made a mistake last season and left him off my Top 25. I corrected it right away and I think I made another mistake putting Dirk at number 12. Which brings me to the present. I am wondering if he can eventually move into the top 5. There will never be another Larry Bird. But if he isn’t close, who will? Dirk can flat out play and he works on his game. People are quick to label him soft, but tell me who gets beat up more than him and he still lights you up. I have always stood by the simple fact that great individual defense will never stop great individual offense consistently. I think Dirk proved that last year against Denver when Kenyon Martin got toasted all series long trying to guard him. The one area he needs to improve in, and it has gotten better, is his leadership. He has the talent around him to win the West, but it’s going to take a more rounded effort from him this season. I think he can pull it off. Watch out for the improved Mavericks and the best jump-shooting seven-footer in NBA history.
6. Chris Paul (3)
I love Paul. He is one of my favorite players to watch and for one reason. His leadership is off the charts and I enjoy how he directs and takes over a game with a scowl that has much bigger players paying attention. When he retires, he will have a pick of any coaching job available because of his ability to communicate and keep players in line. It was just too bad he really could not keep a healthy team on the floor last year. Losing Janero Pargo to a Greek team did not help. Paul did not fare well in the Hornets playoff loss to Denver and was embarrassed and shut down in their last two losses. I expect him to come back with a vengeance and play like a potential MVP candidate this season. His numbers offensively will probably go up unless Peja Stojakovic and David West stay healthy and perform up to expectations. If they don’t, Paul might do a Nate Archibald offensive impersonation this season and score over 25 ppg.
5. Tim Duncan (5)
Duncan is the best leader in the game and its best power forward. I can’t say enough about what a consummate professional Timmy is. Have you ever seen him take a night off? Have you ever seen him take bad shots? Have you ever seen him not be excited for his teammates? I watched David Robinson’s induction the other night and when they put the camera on Duncan, it was obvious where he got the immediate knowledge and unselfish nature from. Robinson stepped aside for Duncan and Duncan has been allowing his teammates to succeed as well with his unselfish nature. I expect Duncan to bounce back from the nagging injuries he experienced last year and help San Antonio challenge the Lakers for the Western Conference crown this year. His all-around numbers will go up, but the one category that could get them back to the Finals will be in the assists column. He averaged 3.5 last year and with the offense flowing through him that will get better.
4. Dwyane Wade (7)
Wade moves up three spots and I am sure in some fan’s eyes it was not enough. I can’t argue with that complaint. Wade is a scoring marvel. When he came into the league, he was all about getting to the basket and flying over the rim. But now he can score from anywhere with regularity. He shot almost 50 percent last year while leading the league in scoring at 30 ppg. He also impressed me by playing in 79 games, which were about 12 games over his average. The obvious reason was that Wade came into the season in great shape and he parlayed it into a career year. The Heat would have won 25 games without him and that’s why he was considered highly for MVP. Leadership will be tested this year again with so many young players and no significant additions. But one thing is for sure: South Beach belongs to Flash!
3. Dwight Howard (4)
I have Howard above Dwyane Wade for one simple reason: He changes the way teams have to defend in the paint. The second chance factor in the NBA is huge. If you give teams second and third chances to score on a consistent basis, your team will lose. Especially if it is Orlando with its plethora of scorers. Howard is so good on the offensive glass that teams don’t expect the player that’s guarding him to garner many rebounds because he has to almost face guard him. Then you put him on the defensive end and he changes the game with blocked shots and an intimidating presence. His offense will get better with improved footwork and patience and his free-throw percentage needs to move up as well. He grabs this spot because he took his team to the Finals last year. If Vince Carter fits in like he should, they might make another appearance with Superman carrying them.
2. Kobe Bryant (2)
The Black Mamba has finally did what many thought he would not be able to do… And that is winning a championship without Shaquille. He is the best offensive player and on-the-ball defender in the league. If Kobe wanted to score 40 a game, he could. But Phil Jackson has finally convinced him to share the ball and save that bottomless energy for the playoffs. Kobe is the most dedicated and smartest player I have ever seen and I wish every aspiring young basketball player could spend a day with him.
1. LeBron James (1)
I expect LeBron to continue to ascend to levels only reserved for the greats of the game. He continues to flourish every year. His shooting percentages across the board continue to grow with his all-around game. He shot 50 percent and elevated his free-throw percentage to 78 percent last season. The 35 points per game he scored in last year’s playoffs are just a sign of things to come for King James. We need to sit back and enjoy the sick individual numbers he will continue to post as his career moves along. There is no doubt he will win a championship before his career is over. Will that happen with Shaq?