I wanted to wait a few weeks into the season before I sprung my updated Top 25 and for good reason. I really wanted to see who really stayed professional during the lockout in regards to conditioning and improving individual skills. Obviously, the Top 10 players rarely change, but there are a few surprises after that. The lockout has definitely had an effect on players and I have graded accordingly. So this list is a combination of last year and the first month of this season. Some players have dropped just based on how they have returned to their teams after an extra long offseason.
The players will blame the lack of a normal training camp and shortened season on their struggles, but I am not buying it. I am observing players that actually did not put forth the effort necessary to prepare for a year like this. It was obvious that whenever the season began there would be back-to-back-to-back games.
Players that did not show up prepared for this short marathon have been penalized in the list. I have a few new entries and some movement at the top. I am impressed with the rookie crop this year and my favorites are Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio and Marshon Brooks, in that order.
This list will surely change in April, but for now I attacked it with a vengeance!
25. Josh Smith (new) – Extremely talented and finally living up to expectations, His kryptonite is shooting long-distance jump shots and he finally seems to be avoiding that. His 50 percent field goal accuracy will stay the same if he doesn’t relent. Smith should make the All-Star team if he continues to shine.
24. Monta Ellis (new) – The best scorer in the NBA for his size and, playing under Mark Jackson, now a much better passer. Ellis is averaging a career best 7.1 assists and that is why he has moved into the Top 25.
23. Marc Gasol (new) – He continues to grow as a player and is quickly becoming the better Gasol. He has the best all-around skills of any center in the league. He is a double–double machine and that consistency will have him in the Top 15 by season's end.
22. Manu Ginobili (23) – He is hurt, but it was obvious based on his start he was headed towards a great season. Ginobili was shooting over 50 percent from the field and playing stellar defense. The Spurs miss him badly and will struggle to make playoffs if he does not recover soon.
21. Zach Randolph (25) – The way Randolph ended last season automatically has him on the list. He is the best scoring power forward in the game because of his versatility, but with the return of Rudy Gay and the improvement of Gasol he will struggle to average over 18 points when he's back. I expect that energy to go towards double-figure rebounding and better interior defense.
20. Steve Nash (18) – I gush when I watch him play. His conditioning just continues to amaze me. Nash has been in constant motion since he entered the league. All due respect to Ray Allen, but Nash is the best shooter in the league and arguably the best ever. He is shooting over 55 percent and drilling over 40 percent of his threes, while leading the NBA in assists again.
19. Chris Bosh (13) – Bosh is quietly setting the tone and having a tremendous start to his season. I criticized him for being soft and hesitant last year, but he has done a reverse and is playing like a legitimate All-Star again. I still would like double-figure rebounding. If he does that, the Heat will be dominant.
18. Pau Gasol (12) – I stopped calling Gasol “the Poodle” last year and it’s because he has fought hard to shed the soft label. I think he is performing well this year despite limited touches. I expect his shot attempts to grow as Kobe Bryant wears down. Until that happens, he should focus more on the defensive end because he has tremendous abilities.
17. Andrew Bynum (new) – Healthy, he is the second best center in the NBA. He has really improved his low-post game to the point where Kobe should feel confident allowing him to get touches in crunch time. He still needs to develop a sense of nastiness about him. When he does, watch out.
16. Amare Stoudemire (7) – It is obvious Stoudemire needs a point guard and I am surprised the Knicks didn’t weigh the consequences acquiring Tyson Chandler and giving up Chauncey Billups. All that said, Stoudemire is playing way below his abilities and is in danger of falling further down on this list.
15. Carmelo Anthony (8) – Anthony is a tremendous scorer that seems to be only occupied with scoring. I am disappointed about how he has taken advantage of the reception Stoudemire and the rest of the Knicks gave him and turned it into his own Garden scoring party. I am hopeful he will realize he needs help sooner than later.
14. Rajon Rondo (17) – His value goes much further than his stats, which by the way are pretty impressive. Arguably the best defender and rebounder at the point guard position. You know he is good when he is carving out consistent All-Star numbers despite playing with three potential Hall of Famers.
13. LaMarcus Aldridge (20) – Aldridge is a very good back-to-the-basket player with a deadly face-up game. The main reason he is moving up the list is because he is not afraid to step up in crunch time and defensively he has gotten better.
12. Russell Westbrook (14) – If Westbrook realized 17 and 10 is better than 20 and 5, he would be considered the second best point guard on the list. He is the best athletic PG I have ever seen, but his demeanor on the court is deflating and needs to change if he ever wants to move up further on this list.
11. Deron Williams (11) – Williams is the strongest point guard in the league. When he makes up his mind to straight gangster his opponent, no guard can deal with him. What makes him great is his ability to stay in the game and give his team whatever it needs. A little flustered currently in regards to his team, but patience will let him know he is in the right place.
10. Chris Paul (10) – Paul is a prototypical leader at the point guard spot. He balances a glare and a smile perfectly to keep teammates focused. His ability to know when to score or pass is Nash-like. The challenge for him is to stay healthy and that will be the difference in the Clippers' playoff success this season. Defensively he is stellar and his array of shot-making abilities keeps defenses off balance.
9. Dwyane Wade (5) – Wade is an offensive machine when he is on his game. Injuries have always been a hindrance to him and this year has been no different. His pairing with LeBron has not been a smooth transition, but it should not stop them from winning multiple championships. Wade is a tremendous mid-range player and as he gets healthier his 44 percent field goal percentage should rise. He is also one the best clutch performers in the game.
8. Blake Griffin (16) – I remember coaching against Griffin in an AAU game and he had 12 dunks in the first 10 minutes. My son who was guarding him said, “Dad, how old is he? He can’t be 17. That’s not fair.” Well, he is in the NBA now and, son, it’s still not fair. He is stronger and more athletic than his opponent every night and he's going to get better. Griffin is a double-double machine and will average 25 and 12 before the season is over. Book it!
7. Dirk Nowitzki (9) – Had I done this list before the season, Nowitzki would have been No. 3. But something is wrong. Where is the player that pulled a Hakeem Olajuwon last year by putting an entire team on his back and winning a championship? The run Dirk took us on was a classic. He is the best big man shooter in the history of this game and that is saying a lot when he is listed above the great Bob McAdoo. He is too good to continue to shoot 45 percent and garner just five rebounds per contest. Hopefully the reported knee injury will not be an issue the entire season or the Mavs are in trouble.
6. Kevin Love (15) – I once saw Kevin Love go up for a rebound in traffic, knock his opponent down and secure it. Instead of running around his opponent to run down court he stepped on him and this was while he was still in high school. I thought that was one nasty and mean dude. Now at 23 years old, he is the best power forward in the NBA. 25 points and 15 rebounds a game? That's Hall of Fame numbers. The part of his game that has to improve is his reliance on taking three-point shots. He would be leading the league in scoring if he turned those five three-point attempts a game into in-the-paint shots.
5. Derrick Rose (6) – I have to admit that I am much harder on my Chicago guys than most others. I have spoken with my therapist and she says it’s because I just can’t let go of the beatings I took at the hands of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Rose is relentless and there's actually nothing he's not equipped to do. His humbleness and sportsmanship have him in the Steve Nash category. Rose is the best in-the-paint shot maker in basketball and if he continues to improve his perimeter shot, he will indeed become the most unguardable as well.
4. Kevin Durant (4) – I was having dinner with my wife last year, looked up and saw Durant walking outside. Without hesitation I bolted out of my seat to approach him to just let him know that I admire everything about his game and his attitude. True to form, he stood there and soaked in everything I said and said thank you. Not one time in those few minutes did I feel rushed or ignored and it seemed like he was reveling in the opportunity to gain more knowledge. This is why Durant will become one of the best players this game has seen. It is mindboggling that his numbers, already in the stratosphere, continue to improve every year. He is standing alongside Kobe Bryant right now as the best perimeter shot maker in the game. The biggest asset Durant has is his leadership. The way he has handled his teammates, especially Russell Westbrook, has been extremely impressive.
3. Dwight Howard (3) – I heard one of my favorite players of all time a few weeks ago emphatically say Andrew Bynum is the best center in basketball. Shaquille O’Neal, I am privy to the fact you do not drink alcohol, but someone put some in the water cooler before you sat in front of that camera. Shaq, give it up, I know it offends you that Howard has taken your Superman moniker and now is doing commercials promoting it. But come on, man. There is no one in the game that can touch him in the paint. He is the most dominant player in the game physically and you of all people should recognize that because that’s what we said about you. I like Bynum, but I wouldn’t say he is the most dominant. Howard scores 20 a game, grabs 15 rebounds and blocks 2.5 shots. Shaq, his kryptonite is exactly the same as yours, my friend: 45 percent from the free-throw line. Howard is a monster and that is why teams are lining up to employ him if he leaves Orlando.
2. Kobe Bryant (2) – I really have no words to actually describe this guy that would do him justice. I remember standing next to him when he was a rookie and we both were playing garbage time. He was so hyped at the fact of being in the game, but so pissed off he wasn’t playing more that it forced him to converse with me during every stoppage of play. Although I did not play for the Lakers, he wanted me to validate to him that the coach was crazy to not be playing him as a rookie. I remember walking away from that game saying the Lakers were going to have their hands full trying to control this kid. Years later, I see what I didn’t see then and that is Bryant might be the best competitor ever. No one wants to step on the Michael Jordan mystique, but I can argue in favor of Bryant and walk away confident I was right. What he is doing right now – 30 ppg, 5 rebounds, 6 assists after all the success he has had for 15 seasons – establishes Kobe as one of the Top 5 players in the history of basketball.
1. LeBron James (1) - I have a hard time understanding what actually makes an individual dislike another. We have had athletes who have gotten in trouble with the law, been involved in messy family squabbles, had drug and drinking problems... But somehow are still beloved by fans. On the other hand, we have LeBron, who has never been in trouble with the law, doesn't drink, has two kids out of wedlock, but just got engaged to the mother, raises millions for young kids in his hometown of Akron... And people despise him. If I was a young kid in a household and my father was in love with an athlete with real issues and disliked an athlete who never seemed to get in trouble, I would be confused. I am laughing as I write this because it almost seems like we as a society created this perfect basketball player from Ohio and we watched him grow to become this perfect basketball player. We didn’t want to wait through four years of college, so we enticed a quick entrance into the professional ranks and on top of that, for some reason, he was able to be drafted by his hometown team. He almost did what we all hoped he would do: Win a championship to cement what we all thought would happen. Well, dreams and desires were interrupted when the player everyone loved decided to conduct his own dream and move on to Miami. That interrupted a great dream for many fans and it has bothered them that James had the gall to abruptly awaken them from it. Well, despite the hate the man is the best basketball specimen I have ever seen and the stuff he is doing on the court this season has him in a stratosphere by his lonesome. 30 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals and shooting a ridiculous 57 percent. When he wins a title, people will say it’s because he has Wade. I think that should be the other way around and I am positive Wade would agree.