1. Kobe Bryant (LAL)
2009-10 Stats: 27.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.6 SPG
Kobe Bryant is a five-time NBA Champion, two-time NBA Finals MVP, 2008 Gold Medalist, 2007-08 NBA MVP, 12-time All-NBA selection, 12-time NBA All-Star, 10-time All-Defense selection, four-time NBA scoring champion and owner of the second-best single-game scoring performance in NBA history (81 points). The accomplishments speak for themselves, and with Bryant still in his prime, they are far from finished accumulating.
Coming off back-to-back championships, Bryant is preparing to make a run at the second three-peat of his career (the first time of course happening alongside Shaquille O’Neal from 2000-2002). The last superstar to pull that off was, you guessed it, Michael Jordan (1991-1993, 1996-1998).
LeBron James may have won the last two league MVP awards, but Bryant has taken home the last two NBA Finals MVP awards and is, in my estimation, still undoubtedly the top player in the game. He is as complete of a player as we have seen this decade. As a scorer, nobody is as lethal or technically polished. From his silky smooth jumper to his effectiveness in the post, to his uncanny ability to create separation to his top-notch use of the pivot, Bryant has every aspect of offensive basketball down pat. Defensively, as noted above with his 10 All-Defensive Team selections, he is of the elite category as well. If you need a bucket in crunch time, I dare you to put the ball in anyone else’s hands but Kobe’s.
The thing that sets him apart from everyone else, however, has nothing to do with his god-given talents. It is his cut-throat, absolute killer instinct that puts him in a class of his own. He doesn’t come to the arena just looking for a W, he steps foot on the hardwood looking for blood. In the offseason and on off-days, he works harder than any player on the planet to fine-tune his skills, maintain tip-top physical condition and solidify his top-notch basketball IQ with his out-of-this-world workout regimen and addiction to film.
Once upon a time, Kobe’s biggest enemy was himself. His own agenda put himself before the team at times throughout his development, and he was far from the ideal teammate. Once he realized that he wasn’t going to win a title by his lonesome, he made the necessary changes to become a better teammate and step up as a leader. Ever since, he has been impossible to bet against. There are a few guys across the league that can challenge Kobe’s per-game production on the stat sheet, but nobody is on his level. He will go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game, and his legacy still has years to go before it is officially cemented.
2. Dwyane Wade (MIA)
2009-10 Stats: 26.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 6.5 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.1 BPG
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are unanimously deemed the top two players in basketball, but the next name that often comes up in the discussion is Dwyane Wade. After missing 31 games in back-to-back seasons, the 2008 Olympian took the league by storm in 2008-09, putting himself back in the MVP discussion and reminding us all of just how good the 2006 NBA Finals MVP was.
With something to prove, Wade posted a career-high 30.2 PPG, which led the league, along with 7.5 assists, five rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per contest on the year, earning him more MVP votes than anyone not named LeBron. Last season, he followed up on his career-year nicely, producing approximately 27 points, five rebounds and seven assists per game.
Despite his rejuvenation, Wade has not been able to get past the first round of the playoffs since raising the Heat’s first franchise banner four years ago. With the moves made this summer to bring in the likes of two-time MVP LeBron James and five-time All-Star Chris Bosh, postseason advancement should no longer be a problem in South Beach.
Wade is a special talent with ideal charisma to take on the role of one of the league’s ambassadors. Blessed with a strong frame, outstanding athleticism and explosiveness, “Flash” has maximized his physical gifts and emerged as one of the most dynamic guards of the decade. His remarkable first step, uncanny ability to weave through the lane, relentlessness, deceptive attack, body control, automatic mid-range jumper, defensive impact (especially on the baseline), toughness, clutch performance, ability to make his teammates better and leadership put Wade in a group that very few players are able to reach.
We all know what Dwyane Wade is capable of on the big stage. Now that he’s finally got himself some serious help down in Miami, it’s only a matter of time before we get to see Wade play at the highest level once again. At his best, he is as good as anyone.
3. Brandon Roy (POR)
2009-10 Stats: 21.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.7 APG
When Brandon Roy entered his name into the 2006 NBA Draft pool, the consensus on his prospects were that he is a good all-around player that does everything well, but the knock on him was that he doesn’t do anything great. Most saw a good pro in Roy, but not a star or a guy that was going to lead a team.
Boy, were they wrong. In just his second year as a pro, Roy was named to the 2008 Western Conference All-Star squad, and he has not been left off since. He is the real deal. Not only is he a guy you can trust with the basketball and rely on for production, he has embraced his role as the team’s leader and has not disappointed as the face of the Portland Trail Blazers franchise. He has a winning attitude, works hard, plays unselfishly and leads by example both on and off the court.
As for his game, the best word I can come up with to describe it is “smooth.” He makes the game look so easy. He’s not an athletic freak nor is he the quickest or strongest guy on the floor, but he is very skilled, fundamentally sound and intellectually ahead of most as a basketball player.
Much like his 2006 pre-draft scouting reports claim, Roy does everything well. At 6’6”, he can handle the ball and create off the dribble like a point guard, he can shoot the rock, he can create his own shot any time he wants to, he has a knack for cutting in and out of defenses on his way to the rack, he is a big time clutch performer and he makes everybody around him better. He doesn’t quite have the athletic features of a Bryant or Wade, but he is without a doubt a terrific leader and one of the more polished players in the league. If Portland can stay healthy, expect big things from Roy in the postseason at some point.
4. Joe Johnson (ATL)
2009-10 Stats: 21.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.1 SPG
The summer of 2010 was all about LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but who would have thought that Joe Johnson would have been the highest paid of them all? While Miami’s eventual “Big Three” decided to take pay cuts to form a super-team, Joe Johnson was more than happy to sign a lucrative six-year, $119 million max deal to stick around in Atlanta. Whether he warrants that kind of contract is up for debate, but all dollars and cents aside, he is one heck of a player.
Ever since he left Phoenix in the summer of 2005 to become the face of the Atlanta Hawks, Johnson has flourished. As a five-year Hawk, Johnson has held accumulative averages of 21.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, good enough to land him four straight Eastern Conference All-Star appearances.
Johnson possesses a diverse perimeter game. He’s got great size for a wing (6’7”, 240 lbs.), can shoot the lights out, has a nice mid-range game, has the ball handling and passing ability to allow him to play three positions, he can body up and apply pressure defensively when he wants to (isn’t always the case) and he is very capable of off for 35+ when he gets hot. Johnson is one of the top wings in the game, and having just turned 29 years of age in June, he’s got a few All-Star caliber years left in him.
As good as he is, however, he’s got something to prove. He has got to become a bit more consistent and produce in the playoffs if he wants to erase the financial hurt from his new contract. Hawks fans won’t forget about his ghostlike performance in last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals until he delivers in the future.
5. Manu Ginobili (SA)
2009-10 Stats: 16.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.4 SPG
Manu Ginobili is everything right with professional athletes today. In a league where so many star-caliber players are caught up on getting their numbers, being the man, signing a max contract and going for all the individual accolades, Ginobili is perfectly fine with accepting a smaller role and coming off the bench for the betterment of the team. If he wanted to, he very well could have placed demands for playing time, touches or a trade if the team was unwilling to accommodate him. He could have signed with a less prominent team as the number one perimeter option and been every fantasy basketball player’s dream wing.
Instead, he chose to stick around in San Antonio, playing under 30 minutes per game in a sixth man role because that’s what Greg Popovich wanted him to do for the team. Three titles later, the plan seemed to have worked out for everybody, and that’s alright with Manu. He doesn’t care if he scores 25 points per game or plays 40 minutes every night, as long as he’s happy playing for a winning team, that’s all that matters. That’s how it should be; unfortunately that kind of attitude from a player of Ginobili’s caliber is extremely rare in American pro sports.
I could go on about his character all day long, but let’s talk about some of the reasons he has reached that star status as a player. First of all, he plays with serious heart, but he’s got the skills to back it up as he is a terrific shooter with three-point range, a very smart player that makes great reads on both ends, an excellent passer, super-crafty and a real playmaker down the stretch of games. He is certainly more athletic than he looks, as well.
Quite frankly, more All-Star players should be like Manu Ginobili, but the rarity of that breed makes him very easy to appreciate.
6. Stephen Jackson (CHA)
2009-10 Stats: 21.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.6 SPG
“Captain Jack” draws mixed reviews, and there seems to be no happy medium. You either love him or you hate him. If you hate him, it has a lot to do with his off-court reputation of a careless thug. However, many people around Jackson will tell you that he is a misunderstood individual. He’s fiery for sure, but he is a very passionate basketball player that loves to play and wants to win. Despite his alleged character flaws, his teammates typically enjoy going to war with him (no, that doesn’t mean throwing punches with him in the midst of a notorious players vs. fans brawl).
In November, Golden State shipped Jackson to Charlotte, where he responded very well to the much-needed change of scenery. With Jackson in the lineup, Larry Brown’s Bobcats held a 41-32 record, helping them to 44-38 overall, good for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and the franchise’s first playoff berth since it arrived as an expansion team in 2004.
Jackson came in and gave the Bobcats just what they needed. Before the trade, the team was defending well but could not seem to put the ball in the basket. As a result, they won just three of the first nine games on the schedule. With a breath of fresh air, Jackson turned the whole season around for the young and scrappy ‘Cats by providing them with a go-to scoring option with championship experience. Appearing in 72 games for Charlotte last season, the team’s new leader put up 21.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
Jackson struggled with the rest of his team in the club’s first playoff series in franchise history, as Orlando ran the table on them and completed a clean 4-0 sweep. Regardless, it was a step in the right direction for the franchise and Jackson was the biggest part of the team’s success. Say what you want about some of his decisions throughout the years, which is understandably concerning at the very least, the guy can ball. His shot selection is undoubtedly questionable at times, but he fills it up and makes an impact on both ends of the floor. Acquiring Jackson was one of Michael Jordan’s best moves yet.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
7. Tyreke Evans (SAC)
2009-10 Stats: 20.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.5 SPG
Tyreke Evans took the league by storm in his inaugural professional season, holding per-game averages of over 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. The only other players to do that in NBA history? Oscar Robertson, LeBron James and the one and only Michael Jordan. It doesn’t get any better than that. Evans’ rookie season wasn’t just impressive, it was historic.
Standing at 6’5” with a very strong and filled out 220-pound frame, Evans bullies opposing guards with his bulk and methodical attack off the dribble. He doesn’t necessarily burn you with first-class quickness, but he is certainly athletic enough to put defenders on his hip. Once he gets that step on you and blocks your lane with his body, you’d better hope your second line defense has your back because it’s over.
Evans is a born scorer who is very crafty around the rim, can get a shot off just about any time he wants, is a strong finisher that routinely converts after contact and has a steadily improving jump shot from 15 feet and out. He doesn’t have three point range at this point, but if he can develop the 15-20 foot jumper ala Dwyane Wade or Derrick Rose, he’ll be as hard to guard as anyone on the perimeter.
With his size, length and sound defensive mechanics, he can guard up to three positions and heavily impact the game on both ends of the floor. That leads to his next-best asset – versatility. Evans can match up with virtually anyone on the perimeter defensively and possesses the necessary ball skills to be trusted with the offense and give you great minutes at the point.
Some might disagree with the fact that Evans was included in my two-guard list as opposed to Thursday’s point guard rankings. The fact of the matter is that he can play the 1 or the wing, but it came down to personal preference. I personally see Evans as more of Dwyane Wade-esque combo guard that is best-suited on the wing as a scorer that can make plays, as opposed to a guard that juggles the responsibilities of a premier scorer and running the offense. Dwyane Wade played a lot of point as a rookie in 03-04, too, but they concluded that he would get the most out of his offensive talents on the wing. I see the same with the 2010 Rookie of the Year. Besides, Evans did play 37% of Sacramento’s shooting guard minutes last year, while only taking up 28% of their minutes at the point.
Regardless of positional classification, he is a superstar in the making. Like any 20-year-old, he’s got to work hard, pay attention to what the coaching staff tells him, grow as a leader and learn the ins and outs of the league, but he’s got a very, very bright future. As long as he can avoid hitting something at 120 mph speeds in his car, Evans will be a force to be reckoned with for a long time.
8. Ray Allen (BOS)
2009-10 Stats: 16.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.6 APG
At 35 years of age, Ray Allen’s recently signed two-year, $20 million contract may very well be his last, but Jesus Shuttlesworth isn’t done yet. Scoff at his age if you’d like, but he remains one of the better-conditioned guys in the league and still has the prettiest stroke out there. Of course, he has regressed from his prime years and is hardly as explosive as he once was, but he still gets the job done and drives opposing wings crazy with his route-running mastery. Oh, and he will still occasionally surprise you with an out-of-nowhere posterization.
Allen has struggled with some inconsistencies of late, but he is still more than capable of going off, as we all witnessed in Game 2 out in L.A., where he set an NBA Finals record by knocking down eight triples in one game (seven of them coming in the first half). The 14-year veteran may require more buckets of ice water than he used to, but those veins of his consist of the same thing he cools his feet with (yes, I realize how weak that forced metaphor turned out).
On top of his sweet stroke and big time clutch performances, Allen is a true professional with many leadership qualities. He is an absolute class act who works hard every day, mentors his younger teammates and maintains remarkable focus in any situation.
Allen may or may not need a walker to get from the locker room to the bus, but on the court, he is still one of top two-guards in the game.
9. Monta Ellis (GS)
2009-10 Stats: 25.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.2 SPG
With mopeds out of the equation in the summer of 2009, Monta Ellis was able to focus on his game and health in order to get his career back on track. The Mississippi native came back better than ever, posting career highs in scoring (25.5 PPG, 6th in NBA), assists (5.3 APG), steals (2.2 SPG, 2nd in NBA) and minutes (41.4 MPG, 1st in NBA).
As far as talent is concerned, there is no denying Ellis’ spot on a list consisting of the top 10 guards. However, the issue with Ellis isn’t talent or production. He is at a difficult spot in the sense that he cannot play the point guard position, as he does not have the ability to run a team and make his teammates better. On top of that, standing 6’3’’ at 180 lbs., he is not big enough to defend most two-guards around the league. Regardless, he is a lightning bolt that can really put the ball in the basket whether it be in transition, off penetration or with his deadly mid-range J, which has developed into one of the league’s best. Don Nelson’s system is perfect for Ellis as it allows him to play free at full speed every night; the numbers speak for themselves.
His game might look a bit prettier than it truly is as the current poster boy of “Nellie Ball,” but he is a talent. He is an undersized scorer whom I’d have a hard time handing the keys to the car as a point guard, but with his current situation, that isn’t much of an issue.
Speaking from a talent standpoint, he should probably be another spot ahead on this list, but he’s got some flaws that have been somewhat covered up out in Oakland, and he’s got some maturing to do. If I’m a starting a franchise, it’d be difficult to pass on Ellis after the top seven names on the list, but if I’m a team trying to win now, give me Ray Allen over Ellis for one year.
10. Jason Richardson (PHX)
2009-10 Stats: 15.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.8 APG
It took Jason Richardson a while to really get his groove going this past season, but once he found his rhythm, he was fantastic. He started the year in good form, but experienced struggles with his shooting consistency in December and January, where he shot roughly 42% from the floor at just about 13 points per game.
From the All-Star break on, however, he was the J-Rich that we all know and love. Throughout the last 29 games of the regular season, Richardson put up just under 18 points per contest at a highly efficient 51.3% shooting mark to go along with hitting a couple treys per game at 45.6% from beyond the arc.
Richardson’s real outburst came at the perfect time, as he put together a remarkable postseason to help the Suns get back to the Western Conference Finals. Through three playoff rounds, the former Michigan State Wolverine produced 19.8 PPG at efficient clips of 50.2% from the field and 47.5% from three-point territory. Highlighting his big time playoff run was a 42-point effort in Game 3 of Phoenix’s first round matchup vs. Portland, in which he buried eight of his 12 attempts from the outside.
Richardson’s game hasn’t changed. He is a great athlete and a big time shot maker/finisher that can put up some serious offensive numbers in a hurry.
Honorable Mention: John Salmons (MIL)
Salmons has quietly developed into a very skilled and productive all-around player. He is a scoring threat both off the dribble and from the outside, can make plays for others and has really been underrated as a perimeter defender. He does a solid job staying in front of his man and disrupting developments with his long arms.
At this point in their careers, Salmons produces more than Vince Carter. While Carter holds the advantage as a shooter and passer (an often underrated aspect of Vince’s game), he has lost more than just a step. His knees are shot. He can no longer explode to the rack at will or overpower nearly any two-guard in his way. Instead, he often settles for jumpers and relegates to the outside game. Granted, when he’s hot, he’s hot, and he was extremely efficient in the second half of the regular season, but another issue with Vince has always been his disappearance in the playoffs. When his team needs him to play at his highest level, he regresses. Carter shot just 40% from the field in his first postseason with Orlando, and was especially abysmal from beyond the arc (12-51). In the last four games of the Eastern Conference Finals, he did not show up.
At this point, Salmons can give you more. Vince is still capable, but he is just not the same.
On the Bubble: Vince Carter (ORL), O.J. Mayo (MEM), Kevin Martin (HOU), Jamal Crawford (ATL), Rip Hamilton (DET)
Positional Rankings: PG
Stay tuned for “Positional Rankings: SF.”