For all of you that think numbers are all it takes via metrics,here is the list and look where our two best players fall:
Gazing at this season's NBA cosmos has created more answers than questions. While it's clear that the stars of Kevin Durant and LeBron James shine the brightest, the order after them is subject to debate. Early in the season, Paul George looked like the league's third-best player. Then LaMarcus Aldridge took his turn. More recently, Blake Griffin seems to have attained that honor, but cases can be made for any number of players.
To help answer the question of who's next after Durant and James and rank the league's best players, let's take a look at this season's numbers, focusing on three measures of player value: my wins above replacement player (WARP), Basketball-Reference.com's win shares and John Hollinger's estimated wins added (EWA).
There are 11 players who rank in the top 10 of at least two of these three metrics. Here's how they compare graphically:
A GRAPH GOES HERE THAT WOULDN'T COPY OF COURSE:
Besides Durant's dominance, a couple of things stand out. First, notice the consistent differences between the three stats. EWA values are the highest because replacement level is set lower than in WARP. Win shares don't explicitly use replacement level, but because credit for defense is divided equally among players on the same team, it has a smaller spread between the best players and the worst ones.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to note from the chart is how quickly talent levels off outside the top two to three players. For example, the difference in WARP between Durant and Anthony Davis (fifth, at 14.5) is larger than the gap between Davis and the 20th-best player. The top 10 is an arbitrary standard, and the difference between finishing eighth and 12th is mostly a matter of taste. So without further ado, here are the top 10:
- James Harden | Houston Rockets
There's room for only one designated hitter whose contributions come almost entirely at the offensive end in my top 10, and Harden gets the nod over Carmelo Anthony because he's a more efficient scorer and a better distributor. In the right situation, Anthony's superior ability to create shots for himself might carry the day. It's easy to underestimate the value of a great, but limited scorer, and Anthony probably has taken a bit too much flak for what he's not. As for Harden, as frustrating as his defensive lapses can be, he's a top-five player in terms of offensive value.
- Paul George | Indiana Pacers
Yes, George has been terrible the past two months. However, the Pacers have been able to hold on to No. 1 in the East thanks to the cushion they built early in the season, and George was the key to that fast start. He remains eighth in both win shares and WARP, and if anything they understate his contributions to the league's best defense. After an unsustainable start from midrange, George's 2-point percentage (46.8 percent) is near what it was the past two seasons (45.7 and 47.2), suggesting that he's settled about where his true talent level lies.
- Anthony Davis | New Orleans Pelicans
Though poor defensive numbers for Davis and the Pelicans as a team remain a concern, it's becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the way he's torching opponents at the other end of the floor. Within weeks of my suggesting Davis could eventually become a 30 PPG scorer, he's averaging 32.3 points in his past eight games (on 58.0 percent shooting) with six 30-point games in the past month. Even win shares, which reflect New Orleans' defensive woes, now has Davis as a top-10 player (he's fifth in both WARP and EWA).
- Russell Westbrook | Oklahoma City Thunder
Because of the time he's missed following knee surgery, Westbrook doesn't appear in any of the value rankings above, but on a per-minute basis he's been as good as ever, ranking ninth in PER and seventh in win percentage, the equivalent version of WARP. Believe that the Thunder are better without Westbrook and that his return has caused the team's slide? In the new ESPN The Magazine, Jordan Brenner explains why that's not the case.
- Blake Griffin | Los Angeles Clippers
Like Joakim Noah, Griffin has benefited from timing his rise for the second half of the season. From January onward, he has probably been the third-best player in the NBA by virtue of lifting his usage rate (from 26.8 percent of the Clippers' plays to 30.8 percent) and his assist rate (from 17.7 percent of his teammates' field goals to 20.8 percent) without sacrificing any efficiency. Over the course of the full season, Griffin falls just outside the top five.
- Stephen Curry | Golden State Warriors
After last year's postseason, Curry was supposed to take the next step and establish himself as one of the NBA's top players. He has done pretty much exactly that, yet the league somehow hasn't taken notice. Curry's season-long stats are similar to the second half of 2012-13, and he's fourth in both WARP and win shares. (EWA has him seventh by virtue of not crediting Curry for the Warriors' team defense.) The problem, of course, is that Golden State hasn't taken the next step as a team, falling short of preseason expectation. It's hard to put that on Curry given that no lineup with more than 250 minutes has outscored opponents by a larger margin than the Warriors' starting five (plus-15.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats).
- Chris Paul | L.A. Clippers
Because of the time he missed with a shoulder injury, Paul probably doesn't belong on the MVP ballot this year. He ranks around 10th in each of the three value metrics. On a per-minute basis, however, Paul is in the top five. And he ranks second to Andre Iguodala of the Warriors in RAPM adjusted plus-minus, as calculated by Jeremias Engelmann. While Paul has ceded some responsibility to Griffin, he's capable of stepping back into a larger role at any time.
- Kevin Love | Minnesota Timberwolves
Love is in a unique spot. There's no track record of top-three players not appearing in the playoffs any of their first seven seasons. At the same time, there's also no track record of teams with a point differential as good as Minnesota's (plus-3.0 PPG) missing the playoffs. The Timberwolves are on track to surpass the 2000-01 Houston Rockets, who outscored opponents by 2.3 points per game, as the best lottery team by this measure since the ABA-NBA merger.
Love deserves some blame for Minnesota underperforming. According to NBA.com/stats, his true shooting percentage drops to .499 in the last five minutes with the score within five points, ranking him 32nd of the 49 players with a usage rate of at least 25 percent in such situations. And Love's poor interior defense also is a factor in the Wolves' inability to stop opponents late in games. But Minnesota might not play so many close games if the bench wasn't continually blowing leads Love helped create. The Timberwolves are plus-6.4 points per 100 possessions with Love on the court and get outscored by 11.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, making the non-Love Wolves fundamentally equivalent to the Philadelphia 76ers (minus-11.4 points per 100 possessions this season).
- LeBron James | Miami Heat
One surprise from the advanced stats: Love has nearly caught James in both WARP and win shares. (EWA has James as the clear No. 2.) Naturally, James isn't concerned with regular-season stats, which is why it's premature to say Durant has passed him as a player, let alone anyone else.
- Kevin Durant | Oklahoma City Thunder
A couple of weeks ago, I felt that Durant deserved the MVP but that James would get it by virtue of a stronger finishing kick. Since James' 61-point outburst, that hasn't really transpired, and it's now hard to see a scenario in which Durant doesn't win MVP. Based on the metrics, it will be well deserved.
Here are the honorable mentions who missed my list:
LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers: The MVP buzz has faded with the Blazers' record. He's as complete as any big man in the NBA, but offensive inefficiency limits his value.
Chris Bosh, Miami Heat: He doesn't fare well by the value metrics, but his versatility helps make the Heat go.
DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings: A top-10 player by EWA who won't make this list until he improves defensively.
Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns: Remarkable, given his track record, that he's in this discussion at all.
Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets: I covered Howard's value at length last month.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors: The most egregious All-Star oversight.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls: Without question, a top-10 player the past two months. But games in November and December count the same in the standings, and Noah wasn't the same player then.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks: He's still a reasonable facsimile of his MVP self, save rebounding.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat: The case can be made he's still a top-10 player when healthy, but availability matters, too.
Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs He's a top-10 player by RAPM, but not all that close in the value metrics because of low steal and rebound rates.
Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks: The final cut. See Harden's capsule.