It’s the time of the year when the MLB and NASCAR playoffs are happening, the NFL season is in full swing, the NHL regular season has just begun, and the NBA season is getting ready to make its presence felt. There are less than 30 days until the 2007-08 season begins, yet for the moment, all we can do is project.
So, in line with others readying themselves, I’m going to begin checking in with NBA news and regular season projections. In the spirit of CBS Sports.com’s Tony Mejia I’m starting the coverage off with the “Top 30 NBA Players.” Like Mejia’s top fifty, this Top 30 is based on projected performance for the upcoming season.
1. Tim Duncan, San Antonio: Tim is the man because he actively impacts both ends of the court. He’s as clutch as any player ever to play the game, including my number two guy, plus he’s a team leader that everyone who pulls on a Spurs jersey follows. On a night in and night out basis, Duncan is as proficient on the offensive end of the floor as a shark is in a feeding frenzy. Defensively he can alternately clog the middle and play extraordinary man-to-man defense. Though he is not known as a leaper Duncan is a better than average shot blocker. As a rebounder, Duncan positions himself for boards as well as any big man in the NBA. His only flaw is that he can be a bit snarky at times – just ask referee Joe Crawford. But overall, at least for now, Tim must get the nod as the Lig’s best player.
2. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers: In the World Championships, Bryant showed up slimmer but more muscular than ever, which is a bad omen for the rest of the Lig. He also showed that, with proficient players around him Bryant is the best basketball player in the world. The problem is, no Lakers player is as proficient as those he played with this summer. At the same time, if Kobe’s knees are in good enough shape to go hard on both ends of the floor, he could well end up the numero uno baller by season’s end. He’ll have to do a couple of other things, to receive this honor: one, become a better leader off the court, which means keeping critiques of teammates out of shopping mall parking lots and off radio shows and two, do everything in his power to make his teammates better players. I know Bryant can’t make somebody get in the gym and take 100 extra shots every day, or bulk up, or stay out of strip clubs the night before a road game, but he can be a facilitator on the court. This means he must know as well as a point guard where his teammates like to get the ball to get their shots off. Early in the season he needs to show trust in them and allow them to take open shots in key moments so that later when the playoff run is on, Kobe isn’t forced to play one-on-five on a given night. Should he succeed, his Lakers will make a deep playoff run and Kobe Bean Bryant will win his first Most Valuable Player award.
3. Dwyane Wade, Miami: D-Wade, when healthy, balls hard all the time. He makes his teammates better because he’s unafraid to drive and kick and equally unafraid to let teammates shine if they’re hot. Wade plays both on-ball defense and passing lanes as well as anyone except Kobe (when Bryant is motivated or healthy). He also is adept at sneaking down on the block and playing help-side “D” as well. Wade doesn’t mind rebounding and leading the fast break and will do all the little things, including leading the Heat in floor burns it takes to win. Talented, smart, tough, and gritty, D-Wade is not a Kobe “Lite” because he’s too talented. He’s more like a Kobe “Bock,” darker and damn tasty on a chilly night in the Miami winter.
4. LeBron James, Cleveland: Sure anyone can make the case that Bron Bron should be number three… but… James has never been confused with Kobe or Wade as a defender; he takes too many poor shots, and still misses too many free throws in key moments. Additionally, from watching James in the World ‘chips it was apparent that he hadn’t yet worked to correct the flaws in his jumper. He still tends to drift when shooting and his release point is not always from the same spot. But he’s LeBron James, which means he’s more natively talented than any player in the NBA.
5. Kevin Garnett, Boston: Until Flip Saunders moved on to man the bench in Detroit, no one realized how mediocre a coach he is. Meanwhile, pretty much everybody blamed KG for the Timberwolves’ woes. Now, people are also realizing just how bad the Minnesota teams Garnett played on were – and that includes the Western Conference Final squad with Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. Garnett is a double-double monster; he and Duncan are the best. Watch this man play this season with Paul “The Truth” and Ray “Jesus Shuttlesworth” Allen. Garnett might have lesser numbers this season, but be fresher as the season wears on. He might well be the most dangerous player in the Eastern Conference come playoff time – and perhaps in the entire league. If Boston can dig up a proficient veteran point guard to pair with Rajon Rondo, Garnett might just walk away with MVP number two.
6. Yao Ming, Houston: That’s right, I said it, Yao at number six. If he avoids oddball injuries he is the Lig’s dominant center (Duncan is a power forward). He’s become attuned enough to the NBA game to get angry and elevate his game when the opposition attempts to intimidate him with hard fouls. He clogs up the lane unlike player not named Shaquille O’Neal and has become a double-double master. Oh, and he’s learned to effectively pass out of the double-team to the point where it’s to the opposition’s disadvantage to do so. With his touch around the basket and his 12-15-foot range on his jumper, Yao is set up for a wonderful 2007-08.
7. Jason Kidd, New Jersey: The 21st century triple-double man is so good, so savvy, that age has no effect on the 34-year old point guard. Though his jumper will always be his Achilles heel, no player in the NBA other than Kidd can change the balance of a game without scoring a point. He is the consummate floor leader on the offensive end and plays good enough defense to hold his own every night.
8. Steve Nash, Phoenix: Little Stevie Fingertips is in the perfect system for his skills to shine. He’s ranked beneath Kidd because for Nash to be at his most effective he must put the ball in the basket. However, his vision in the open court is unparalleled, his jumper is clutch and butter at the same time, and he’s a magician with the ball when he drives the lane. No, he can’t play defense, but on the Suns, outside of Raja Bell, who can?
9. Paul Pierce, Boston: The Truth is just that. The man can be damn near unstoppable when he gets in the flow of a game. He can, at will, post up a defender, or take him off the dribble, or shoot jumpers in his face. When motivated, Pierce is one of the NBA’s better on-ball small forward defenders. This season, with the addition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to the Celtics roster, Pierce will be freer than at any point in his career to exploit defenses. The NBA could be Paul’s playground this year. And with Garnett, Boston now has two legitimate MVP candidates.
10. Manu Ginobili, San Antonio: I repent. Who else in the NBA who is as proficient a players as Manu is willing to come off the bench because he knows it is ultimately more important to provide energy to a team than it is to build his stats? No one but Ginobili. Additionally, not many players are willing expend the energy to play straight man-up defense every second they’re on the floor and still take key shots late in the 4th quarter of of the Finals. Manu Ginobili is one of the three players in the Lig who are completely unafraid to fail (the other two are Kobe and Allen Iverson). He will perform any role he is asked and is upper-level proficient in every aspect of the game. That cannot be said for many players.
11. Carmelo Anthony, Denver: Melo had the best FIBA America ‘Chips of any US player (I know Hollinger had the straw marked “Bron Bron” out and in full effect). This is a pivotal season for the man picked after Darko Milicic in the 2003 NBA Draft. Anthony can score from any point on the floor and is explosive in the open court. We should see Melo abilities flower with a full season running with AI.
12. Chauncey Billups, Detroit: Chauncey is nothing if not consistent. Last season’s Pistons meltdown was blamed on a bickering locker room – and, to some extent, was a reflection of Billups’ leadership capabilities. But Billups is the top PG defender in the NBA and, when the offense flows, a master puppeteer. He nicks you here, touches you there, wets you in this little spot, wets you again in that little spot, and pretty soon your team is hemorrhaging points. With last season stuck in his mind, look for a stellar season from C-Bill.
13. Tracy McGrady, Houston: T-Mac is so damn gifted. I wonder, has he begun the practice of picking up a basketball and actually working on his game before training camp begins? McGrady sometimes refuses to take over games when the situation begs for him to do so. This instinct to lay back and watch costs him dearly; so does his balky back. Health is such an “if” for Tracy, he cannot be ranked higher.
14. Tony Parker, San Antonio: We all witnessed the breakout of Tony Par-kair last season, especially during the ‘Offs. The moment he scores five points and dishes 12 dimes and pulls down eight boards and he’s happy with that performance is the day he is elevated to the number one PG spot in the Lig.
15. Carlos Boozer, Utah: Booze is ——– nice. He has that slow, Jamaal Wilkes without the awkward spin jumper, he has low post moves that befuddle opponents. and he’s rough and tough without afro puffs on the glass and as a staunch and sturdy defender. Look for Carlos to start for the West in the All-Star game this year.
16. Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix: Will he expand his game beyond one low post move (with his leaping ability, Amare’s game is built for an up-and-under move)? Will he begin to take advantage of his physical ability to play better on-ball and team defense? He must if he wants to rise to elite status. Stoudemire seems like a determined player, the Jack McCallum painted a not-so-flattering picture of Amare’s work ethic in his book, “Seven Seconds or Less…” He’s another player who rises into the top 10 if he works on his game just —- that much more.
17. Shaquille O’Neal, Miami: Everybody sing along: Shaq! Hawwwww! He is the master of the universe! O’Neal’s been in the Lig now, what 29 years, and the refs still don’t know how to call a foul against opposing players when they foul him? When healthy and when motivated, Shaq is still the most dominant player in the NBA today. He’s has a tough offseason with the divorce from his wife and all. Then, Heat head everything Pat Riley called a midnight practice to open training camp. There were three players who did not match the Riley body fat legal limit ——– and Shaq was not one of them, so, it appears we can expect a motivated O’Neal. If the Heat gets a healthy O’Neal, everyone will be forced to sing in unison: Shaq! Hawwwwww! He is the master of the universe!
18. Baron Davis, Golden State: The Black Baron proved in the Golden State Warriors stretch run and in the playoffs that he is a bad man. Is he better then Steve Nash? Yes. But. He’s not as consistent. So, no he’s not. Can he control a game without scoring? Probably, but he’d rather not. And when he scores he… Just. Gets. Off. On the ball slipping through the nylon. And, with his heavy, strong build, he can bully opposing point guards to uncomfortable spots on the court on the defensive end of the floor. This is a really important follow-up year for Davis. If he plays like he did late last season and in the ‘Offs, he’ll be knocking on the door for the top PG spot.
19. Chris Bosh, Toronto: C-Bo (not the Northern Cali C-Bo) is diez y ocho for now, but by the end of the year he might just crack the top 12. The schmoove Texan has taken the KG-style of big man play to the 21 century next level. He is a Garnett-Jermaine O’Neal mix who anchors the Raptors defense as well as either of his predecessors. If he improves his shooting percentage from 49.6% to around 53% this season, his scoring average will jump five to seven points. Patience, young man, patience.
20. Gilbert Arenas, Washington: It took long enough, but Gilberto Gil is mos’ def a top 20 NBA baller. He said yesterday that his knee is actually stronger than it was before the injury late last season. He can drive. He can shoot. He plays solid enough defense. But, like Tony Parker, Baron Davis, and to a lesser degree Steve Nash, can his team be successful is he does not score? If Arenas establishes himself as a team leader the wizards will challenge to break into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
21. Allen Iverson, Denver: AI’s low shooting percentage and his unwillingness to be less than the number one gun dropped him this far. Sure, by the end of the season Iverson can climb the charts to his once rightful position, but the game he plays in Denver is not the one he played in Philly. In the wide-open Nuggets offense AI must be a facilitator, an enabler for Carmelo Anthony, and lastly a scorer. On defense he only has to continue to be one of the smartest passing lane defending guards in the history of the NBA. Overall, it’s not that tall a task, but it’s a different and potentially one for AI. Let’s see how he handles the responsibility for an entire season.
22. Michael Redd, Milwaukee: Redd’s injury kept the Bucks from the playoffs last season. The Bucks were 3-17 without Redd in the lineup last season and an above .500 team with him. Since NBA reporters constantly argued that wins and losses meant so much that Dirk Nowitzki was the hands down MVP last season, it could be argued that Redd was far more valuable to the young Bucks than Dirk was to the Mavericks. So much for the cred of the voters. Redd is a shooter and a quiet but efficient leader. Because he relies on his jumper for the lion’s share of his points and is only a fair defender, Redd cannot be ranked higher. Milwaukee will be in the hunt again this year and Redd must add to his game for the Bucks to be a viable playoff team in the increasingly more competitive Eastern conference.
23. Luol Deng, Chicago: Deng is good, very good. He’s underrated in every aspect of the game, yet he is the linchpin of the Bulls. He is much like a younger Manu Ginobili, except with a higher upside. He can shoot from anywhere on the court and has nice post moves. He rebounds well. He defends well. And he plays with fire. This season expect to see Luol bust out.
24. Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana: What is it about JO? Maybe it was the money. Maybe it was the Palace Revolution. Maybe he just got old too fast. But whatever it is, something is missing from O’Neal’s game. All the negative swirl around the Pacers doesn’t help, either. And all that proves is that JO doesn’t hold that leadership sway over his teammates that he thinks he does. He’s all-around above average, which got him this spot. But when you look at him, you think, damn he should be top 10. And that’s exactly why he’s number 24.
25. Shawn Marion, Phoenix: Finally a place for the Matrix. Marion does nothing well on his own, but does everything well enough to get his on his own. He doesn’t have a dribble-drive move. He doesn’t pass well. He defends only sometimes. And he’s much more interested in spotting up in the left corner waiting for Stave Nash to kick him the rock for a three than he is hitting the boards, initiating the break and filling the lane as a trailer… but… Matrix is the best garbage man in the game. So, he grabs plenty of rebounds, scores plenty of points, and does what he needs to help to be the Suns number two defender to Raja Bell. This is the conundrum that is Shawn Marion. He will never be good enough to be “the Man” on any team, but he is just good enough to complain about why he isn’t. Oh yeah, and he’s soft as butter mentally. After years of dealing with his whining, the Suns are growing tired of babysitting his psyche. More of the same can be a team killer, let alone a Marion killer. It will be an interesting 2007-08 season for the Matrix.
26. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas: I read the posts in the comment section when I had Dirk in the top 10. Then I thought and thought and thought. And you know what? Dirk isn’t that good. Yeah, he added some defense to his game, but he was still a below average defender. He actually co-led the Mavericks – with Josh Howard – to the Lig’s best regular season record, but wilted in the playoffs. The Dallas unseemly first round exit to the Golden State Warriors highlighted Nowitzki’s glaring deficiencies. Dude better add something from the post to his game or he’s going to drop even more next season. And when I think about it, the Warriors provided the blueprint on how to stop Nowitzki and I don’t know if he has the physical talent to overcome a smaller, but quick and tough defensive player. A whole lot of forwards will be looking to enhance their reps off Dirk this season. We’ll see if he’s up for it.
27. Antawn Jamison, Washington: ‘Tawn proved exactly what his status is in the NBA during the Wizards first round loss in the ‘Offs last season. Jamison’s 32 ppg in the first round against Cleveland actually put a scare into the Cavs every game, though the ex-Boulez still got swept. Not many pundits give Jamison props, but watch him this year. Now that he knows he can get off regardless of the opposing defense’s tactics, we could well see a 25 and 10 year from the Washington forward.
28. Josh Howard, Dallas: That’s right, I feel Josh Howard is that close to Dirk. Howard was the Mavericks’ best defender last season. He often played point forward, two guard and acted as a swing man. What more could you ask for from a player? One more year with confidence, that’s all. One more year and he can vault right over his more ballyhooed German teammate.
29. Deron Williams, Utah: D-Will is a J Kidd clone with a twice as good a shot. The young man is strong everywhere on the court, on both ends of the floor. He passes with the best of ‘em and plays defense better than the rest of ‘em. If Williams, like Kidd, can learn to feel successful on a given night scoring only eight points, but stay involved in the game and get his 13 assists and nine boards, control the tempo, and lead the Jazz to a win, he will be up in the top 15 next year.
30. Pau Gasol, Memphis: Pow! Without him the Grizzlies were nothing. With him the Grizz weren’t too much. The thing about Got Soul is that he has a smooth all-around big man game. He’s not bad on defense, though he could stand to put on a little more weight. Lets’ put it like this: Pau does everything well enough to get him into the top 30. He needs to stay healthy, though. Like many players in the 21-30 range, this is an important season for Gasol. Staying in the 25-30 range isn’t good enough.