10. Blake Griffin, PF, LA Clippers: Made strides in several areas, including improving his outside shot and his free throws, his passing in the half court and even his post defense. Just looked more comfortable in his own skin overall, leading breaks down the floor and hitting trailing teammates in transition, plus he was unstoppable in the post at times. He's got a few moves down there, and some counter-moves as well, and looks less robotic than he used to. The only weaknesses in Griffin's game now is that it's still possible to get under his skin and his endless flopping is guaranteed to draw the ire of opponents, which serves to only provoke them to go back at him more.
Last Year List: 36 SI List: 10
9. Kevin Love, PF, Cleveland: Not that he'll mind (much), but it's going to take Love some time to get used to playing with really good players and coaches who hold him accountable, especially on the defensive end. His numbers in every category figure to drop, except maybe the shooting percentages, because his usage rate will be way down as a third option. The challenge for Love will be to figure out how to work best with LeBron James. Will he be strictly a jump shooter like Chris Bosh was last year, or will he still post down low and work the boards to get his touches? Theoretically, Love could thrive on the glass with all the attention LeBron James draws, but at the same time the floor will be spaced the most with Love out on the three-point line, leaving another big to scoop up the boards. If Love can add a pump-fake and dribble drive to his arsenal as a weapon for closing out defenders, it'll take him a long way.
Last Year List: 29 SI List: 7
8. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Portland: Not quite in Love's class as a scorer, rebounder or even outlet passer, but Aldridge gets the slight nod over him because he provides a bit more resistance in his own end, blocking twice as many shots, and he's shown that he can work better with teammates and coaches. Then there's the fact he has made the playoffs four times already in his career. LMA also has a better jumper from mid-range, whereas Love pretty much just operates from either around the basket or downtown. Aldridge was a beast in the first round against Houston before tailing off against the Spurs. If he adds a couple more feet of range to his jumper, he's really going to be impossible to deal with.
Last Year List: 31 SI List: 12
7. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City: Nobody plays harder game in and game out than Westbrook. He's a freak -- from the way he attacks the offensive glass to the reckless way he goes after steals to the breakneck speed of his relentless attacks on the rim. He's just wired differently than anyone else. For the most part, it's a good thing, but it's also detrimental to himself and his team in little ways here and there. Defensively he's too manic to stay disciplined and just guard his guy. He pounces on every jab step and fake, taking himself out of position. He over rotates on guys. He gambles when there's no need. As a consequence, he keeps getting beat by guys who have no business beating him. Offensively he thinks he's better than he is. He shoots too many threes for how many he makes. He shoots too many jumpers in general -- even when he's not on -- just because he always thinks the next one is going in. He goes to the basket so fast that he slams the ball off the backboard on layup attempts, since it's practically impossible to calibrate the proper touch and angle at such supersonic speeds. Every facet of his game is built on speed and aggression and there's not enough nuance. And in spite of all of these faults, you'd take him in a second because you know you'll get two things you can't coach: effort and results. Finally, I'm not sure if having a real coach would make him better or worse or have no impact at all.
Last Year List: 14 SI List: 4
6. Joakim Noah, C, Chicago: He gives you almost everything Marc Gasol does -- he doesn't have the 18-footer -- but he does most of them a smidge better. He's quicker defensively, and he took on the role of point-center when Derrick Rose went down, singlehandedly leading the Bulls to the playoffs despite having very little around him. Has become the team's unquestioned leader, to the point where Rose will have to understand that and accept being just a guy who scores points instead of the face of the franchise now. Noah doesn't get the credit Roy Hibbert does defensively when in reality he's the best defensive center in the East. Hibbert is a slightly better rim protector, but Noah is mobile enough to get out and hedge in the high post or the elbows, and guard different types of guys. He doesn't have the smoothest offensive game, but sticks to his strengths and he's done it without a real point guard setting him up forever. The one knock against him is Nene beat him up pretty good in the playoffs, but Noah was most likely just worn down to a nub by then.
Last Year List: 10 SI List: 17
5. Tim Duncan, C, San Antonio: It's just insane what Duncan, even at 38, can do on both ends of the floor. After 18 years in the league, he's still the most complete big in the game. He envelops shots with his long arms and corrals rebounds over people ten years younger. He keeps finding ways to score over and around guys, using pump fakes and up-and-unders and finishing screen rolls. His passing keeps getting better from all areas of the court. His jumper comes and goes, sometimes it has arc and other times it's flatter than a sideline interview from Pop. There is practically nothing Duncan can't do, including breaking people's ankles on a crossover dribble. He's still the best player on the best team and if anything, ranking him fifth feels too low.
Last Year List: 2 SI List: 5
4. Chris Paul, PG, LA Clippers: Paul is the league's best pure point guard and has been since Steve Nash broke down. He's the master of the lob pass but he can find anyone from any spot of the floor. He controls the tempo of the game better than anyone. When he wants to play fast, the Clips play fast and when he wants to milk the clock down to the last second, they do that. Paul is reminiscent of Isiah Thomas in that he's capable of scoring far more than he averages but he looks to get everyone else going first and saves his points for when they're most needed, trusting himself to get to the rim and to the line against anyone. He's a bully at both ends of the court and likes to be the boss, but he got better at delegating last year and let Griffin control entire possessions without his involvement for the betterment of the team. Paul is even a tougher competitor in his own end, refusing to back down from anyone, and he relished guarding Kevin Durant in the playoffs despite the massive height differential. He's a lethal pickpocket and far quicker than he looks. He's like an old lion that way, lulling you into a false sense of security and striking in a sudden burst. He isn't perfect though. He had one of the league's all-time brain cramps down the stretch in Game 5 at Oklahoma City, which cost his team the series, and he's been an uneven playoff performer overall. Also, he regularly misses a chunk of regular season games, and the timing of those injuries starts to get suspicious after a while, almost like they're planned mid-season vacations to recharge his batteries.
Last Year List: 4 SI List: 3
3. Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans: Everyone knew Davis would be a superstar eventually, but few expected the exponential progress he made in just his second season, when he was still only 20 years old. He showed impressive range on his jumper and shot free throws at a 79.4 percent clip. His face-up game was very advanced and he sprinkled a couple of post moves. His first step is blindingly quick for someone his size. Davis even improved his passing a bit and led the league with 2.8 blocks per game. He dominated the FIBA World Cup the way Durant did two years before and it's dizzying to imagine where his game will be in a couple years. It seems a safe bet to guess that he'll be the league's next MVP whenever James or Durant surrenders the honor. As a defender, Davis' game is still behind his offense, which is the exact opposite of what we all figured when he came out of Kentucky after a year of seasoning, but having Asik behind him should help Davis enormously. He'll be free to swoop for blocks on the weak side and to concentrate on the glass. He should also get more clean looks on the other end with Jrue Holiday back in the fold.
2. Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City: Durant had, for him, a pretty miserable playoffs coming on the heels of his first MVP, but I come today not to bury him but rather to praise him. It's worth recognizing that Durant carried the Thunder for a large stretch last season when Westbrook was injured/healing, during which time Durant improved as a defender and a playmaker. Is he perfect in either area? Certainly not, but he did improve. He earned the award. What did him in, ultimately, were two things: First, he didn't have enough help when it mattered. The Thunder basically had four players they relied on for everything and were reduced to playing 108-year-old Derek Fisher down the stretch of Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. Second, he was clearly exhausted from the absurd amount of minutes Scooter Brooks played him in so many meaningless regular season games. And then the playoffs. He didn't have the legs for his jumper when he needed them most and there was some mental fatigue too which was evident in some of his turnovers and missed assignments on defense. Durant's still in his prime, but he's not getting any younger. To get his best in May and June he needs to be rested more during the season, and he needs a couple more guys on his squad who can play.
Last Year List: 3 SI List: 2
1. LeBron James, SF, Cleveland: Speaking of needing fewer minutes and more help, what else needs to be said about James? He played far better in the 2014 Finals than he did the year before and the Heat were absolutely annihilated anyway because his supporting cast was awful. James is one of the league's best drivers, post-up scorers, passers and defenders. He gets to the free throw line constantly and rebounds very well for his position. He gets steals and he blocks shots. He shoots threes better than his reputation suggests and shoots from everywhere at unfathomably high percentages. His stamina is unparalleled, cramping issues and all. The idea of him having some young guys around him who can play sounds positively terrifying for anyone who's not a Cavs fan.
Last Year List: 1 SI List: 1