Originally posted on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 10/20/11

For Part One of this two-part series, which is inspired by ESPN’s attempt to rank all NBA players from 1-500, click here.

Remember, our goal here is to rank the top 25 players in the NBA right now.

A quick review of the criteria:

Bill Gates, an extremely under-the-radar die-hard basketball fan, approaches you with an idea. The NBA lockout will not be resolved this year. Mr. Gates has decided to fund a rogue basketball league for the next six months. Here are the rules:

  • There will be 25 teams.
  • Every player in the world is up for grabs.
  • You are presented with the #1 pick.
  • We are using the exact same game rules as the NBA (example: no hand-checking, so quick guards maintain their ridiculous advantage).
  • The draft will follow the incredibly boring old-school non-snake style…so you get the 1st pick…and the 26th pick…and the 51st pick…etc. Does this make it extremely unfair for the guy picking 25th? Sure. Who cares. Just think about yourself in this scenario.
  • Salaries don’t matter…Bill Gates will pay all 1st round picks $20 million dollars, all 2nd round picks $5 million dollars, 3rd round picks $3 million dollars…and so on.
  • The league will last for four months exactly. Come June, the NBA lockout will be resolved, and even though they lost a season, they will be ready to come back in 2012.
  • The GM of the winning team gets $50 million dollars and the opportunity to become the new GM of the Portland Trail Blazers – the team that Bill Gates just stole from Paul Allen in a move that has the entire business world in a frenzy.

Who do you pick?

The reason for all of these rules is simple.

  • It doesn’t matter which NBA player has the most future potential.
  • It doesn’t matter which NBA players have championship rings under their belts.
  • It doesn’t matter who each NBA player currently plays with.
  • Nothing matters but this: Who is the best player, right now, in the NBA.

As promised, here is my top 25.

Guys who narrowly missed the cut: Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Joe Johnson, Danny Granger, Andrew Bogut, and Stephen Curry.

25. Al Jefferson

Jefferson is one of maybe five guys in the entire league that commands a double team in the low post. He averaged 19 and 10 last season, and he even improved on the defensive end where he blocked almost two shots a game. Another issue that has flown under the radar is that besides his major knee injury a few seasons ago, he’s surprisingly durable – he’s only missed six games in the past four years otherwise.

24. Manu Ginobili

At 34 years old, Manu’s prime is probably behind him. However, this will still only be his tenth year in the league, and he has a lot left in the tank for the near future. Last season, he was clearly the Spurs’ best player, averaging 17, 5, and 4 for a team that finished with the best record in the West. A lot of what Manu does can’t be measured in stats though – like catching bats with his bare hands.

For those of you that think Manu is overrated, I offer you this: List five shooting guards in the NBA who are better than him. Can’t do it, can you? Manu still got game.

23. Monta Ellis

Ok ok…don’t freak out. Monta is the first of several guys that we will talk about that is just, unfortunately, trapped on a terrible team in a system that is not right for him. Remember the criteria for this exercise: you get to build the team. Are there three reasons why he couldn’t be a poor man’s Allen Iverson with the right players?

First of all, the rules favor Monta more than they EVER favored Iverson. If you could team Ellis up with a tall point guard that’s a good shooter and could guard other shooting guards (Jason Kidd), and even a remotely decent big man that could shoot the rock from 20 feet (David Lee, Paul Millsap, etc.), wouldn’t Ellis be absolutely TERRIFYING to guard one-on-one? If you spread the floor with shooters, and big men that could bang inside and shoot, Ellis would be fabulous.

22. Paul Pierce

Pierce, at 34, is still getting it done on both ends of the floor. He averaged 19 points a game last season for a team that had a surprisingly low number of scorers. He routinely guards the other team’s best player, and he is incredibly durable. He’s boring, old-school, and tough. And he’s still a top 25 player in the league.

21. Kevin Love

ESPN listed Love as the #16 overall player in the league. Here is my counter. Didn’t we see what Kevin Love’s ceiling as a team’s best player was last season? Sure, he’s a double-double machine, but the T-Wolves were absolutely terrible.

Yes, they have an awful GM. And yes, they also had 35 small forwards on their team. However, Chris Bosh did more with just as little for years in Toronto. I love the big fella, but he’s not better than ANY of the next five guys – who all happen to be Power Forwards as well.

20. Chris Bosh

  • Is Bosh languishing away on a team that doesn’t cater to his strengths in the least bit? Yes.
  • If Bosh was traded for someone half as good but with a game like Joakim Noah, would the Heat be much better? Yes.
  • Is Bosh way too much of a finesse big man for the Heat to succeed? Possibly.
  • But is Bosh still a great player? Yes.

Just remember what he did on Team USA when the team made sense. If you drafted Chris Bosh, you could draft a guy like Noah to play beside him, do all the dirty work, and play defense – enabling Bosh to be an unguardable force on the high post – just like he was in Toronto.
Bosh has taken a lot of heat (no pun intended), but on the right team, in the right system, he is still absolutely one of the best players in the game.

19. Al Horford

Horford is another guy that is stuck on a team that doesn’t cater to his strengths at all. However, he is so unselfish that he has filled the hole in the Hawks for years with nary a complaint. In all actuality, he’s a very skilled big man that can shoot and pass very well. For the Hawks, he’s stuck defending the other team’s best big man every game, and trying to grab every single rebound that Josh Smith doesn’t tip dunk.
He’s been playing a rough, tough game for four years now, even though that’s not necessarily his strength. Put him on the right team, and he will blossom into so much more.

18. Amare Stoudemire

What can you say about Amare that hasn’t been said already? Are his knee problems terrifying to think about for Knicks fans? Yes. Does he constantly play “matador” defense AT BEST? Yes. Is he an arrogant player who fits right in with the other stars in New York? Yes.
But he’s also the third best scoring big man in the league, as well as a surprisingly effective player in crunch time. I would take Amare for one year any day of the week.

17. Blake Griffin

When I first saw that ESPN had Griffin at #10, I freaked out. Then I thought further. He had to play for Mike Dunleavy, they never ran plays for him, and there really were no good passers on the Clippers last year. Despite all of that, he averaged 23 and 12.

The excitement that Griffin brings to the floor is unmatched, and the intensity with which he plays is unbelievable. Unfortunately, I’m not sure HOW MUCH that actually translates into winning games. Would Griffin be a top 3 player if this was about the future? Definitely. However, if we are just looking at this year, there are still some other guys left on the board that have more complete games, and have proven to be better winners than the youngster.

16. LaMarcus Aldridge

Aldridge might be the most underrated player in the league. What is it about Portland players being underrated? For years, Brandon Roy was the guy that didn’t get nearly enough credit, and now it’s the big man that he was drafted with.

Very quietly, Aldridge averaged 22 and 9 last season, as he led the Blazers to a surprising playoff birth. He also shot a very good 50% from the field and even 80% from the foul line. He’s one of the best big men scorers in the league, and is a much better passer and defender than Amare and Blake.

15. Steve Nash

Is he almost over the hill? Sure. Is he over the hill yet? Only if averaging 15 points and 11 assists with percentages of 49/91/40 is bad.

The fact is that Steve Nash practically wrote the book on how a point guard should run a team in this era. I think it’s clear to everyone, now, that HE was the engine in the machine, not Mike D’Antoni.

As long as you surround Nash with a few shooters and a big man that can protect the rim, Nash’s teams are a lock for the playoffs.
I have to be careful with Nash, because I love him so much that hyperboles can start rolling shamelessly off my tongue. But make no mistake about it. Nash is the best teammate in the league, and if I had the #15 pick and he was still on the board, I would take him in a heartbeat.

14. Pau Gasol

Pau is one of those guys that’s 10x more impressive when you watch him live. He has more skill than almost every other big man, and is actually a very good teammate (consider the fact that he has meshed with Kobe, World Peace, the Kardashians, and more for the past several years).

I probably don’t even need to spend much more time defending him. In my mind, he’s not only the fourth best big man in the league, he’s a winner.

13. Zach Randolph

To be honest, I wanted to put the big man higher. There is no more dominant big man in the league right now on the offensive side of the ball than Z-Bo. He can shoot the three, he can post you, he can hit the midrange j, and he can pass…all while possessing a 10 inch vertical. If Randolph were white, he would be hailed as the next Kevin McHale. Instead, people keep focusing on his troubled past and saying, “Let’s see him do it again.”

Not me. Randolph is simply unstoppable with the ball in his hands. And in a league with so few big men, that makes him the 13th best player in the league.

Crap. Now I want to rank him higher. Let me just move on before I talk myself into anything foolish.

12. Deron Williams

Well, I think we can all put to rest the Deron Williams vs. Chris Paul arguments for the time being. Even so, D-Will is still a fantastic player.
He’s probably the most complete scorer at the PG position in the league, and his size advantage allows him to tire out most other PGs every single game.

Unfortunately for Deron, I’m not sure if he’s really a great team player. A guy can have high assist numbers without actually making his team better, and I’m afraid Deron is one of those guys.

11. Rajon Rondo

Instead of talking about what Rondo CAN’T do (shoot the ball), let’s discuss what he CAN do.

Without a doubt, he’s the best defensive point guard in the league. And in a league where nobody can guard anybody, that’s an invaluable quality.

Further than that, he’s the third best passer in the league behind Nash and CP3. He averaged over 11 assists a game last year…and NOBODY was playing him to score. Teams went into games knowing that Rondo was going to pass first…and he still abused them.

Sure, he’s a bad shooter. That’s fine. I’ll still take a guy who is going to be the fiercest player on the floor in every game, and who will have his teammates’ undying respect at all times.

10. Russell Westbrook

There is no better example of a “Table” player in the league. He brings so much to the dinner table…and yet takes so much away.

Is he possibly a bad teammate for Kevin Durant? There’s no question.

However, I will never forget opening night from last season when he went mano-y-mano with Derrick Rose down the stretch…and beat him.
All I’m saying is this. If you traded Westbrook for Rose last season, I don’t think there would have been a huge difference. Sure, Chicago may have won 5 fewer games, but all things considered, I think Westbrook would have been a SLIGHTLY poor man’s MVP.

So basically, you have a guy who is 97% as good as Derrick Rose. That’s amazing. He’s definitely a top ten player in my book…especially if I could build my team around him the right way.

9. Carmelo Anthony

Charles Barkley once said that Carmelo was the easiest and most complete scorer in the league. I agree. There are six ways to score: Shoot the three, shoot off the dribble, shoot off the pass, post up, get to the rim, and get to the foul line. Carmelo can do all of those with ease.
That is why he is, every year, one of the best clutch scorers in the game. There is simply no fool-proof way to guard him down the stretch.
He is also an above average rebounder and an underrated passer. If he gave even 75% on defense, Carmelo would be higher.

8. Kobe Bryant

Alright, Laker fans. Just do as I say. Breathe in. Breathe out. Count to ten. Now listen.

There are not many people that love Kobe more than me. I actually think he’s going to have a better career than Michael Jordan. However, he’s a shell of his former self. And you really can’t argue otherwise.

He averaged 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists last year – very good, but not other-worldly. He also had VERY average percentages of 45/83/32.

The fact is, he can no longer get to the rim whenever he wants. He’s also not a good three point shooter, and hasn’t been for several years now.

He is what he is. 1998 Michael Jordan. He just kills you with his back to the basket.

The only problem is that the league is much better today than it was in 1998. An unathletic Michael Jordan might still have been one of the top ten athletes in the league back then. An unathletic Kobe just has way more problems in 2011.

I know he has more rings. I know he’s accomplished great things. I know he’s a warrior.

But for THIS year? With the game he has RIGHT now? These next seven guys are, simply, better.

7. Dwyane Wade

There is literally no way that you could look at the numbers from last season and objectively argue that Kobe is better than Wade at this point. Kobe is a better shooter, but that’s it. Wade is a better slasher, he’s more explosive getting to the rim, he’s a better passer, and he’s CLEARLY a better defender at this point. (Don’t be fooled by the ridiculous All-NBA Defensive Teams…Kobe hasn’t been an elite defender for three years now.)

The guy that gets Wade at #7 will be licking his chops.

6. Kevin Durant

He can do almost everything that Carmelo can do (he can’t post up consistently yet) at a slightly better rate. He may not be the easiest and most complete scorer in the league, but he is the best scorer.

He’s also a leader, and loves to have the rock in crunch time. He dominated for Team USA, and he was a manimal in the playoffs last year.
Having him #6 is not a slight either. Again, if this were a draft for the future, he could very well be #1. These other five guys are just a little bit better than him RIGHT now.

5. Dwight Howard

I had more trouble with D-12 than I had with anyone else on this list. On the one hand, he’s the best defensive big man in the league, and has a growing offensive game. Nobody can guard him. Nobody is as big as he is. He’s very unselfish. He’s a game-changer in every single way.
However, this Superman has a kryptonite as well – free throw shooting.

Dwight Howard, for all of his positives, runs away from the ball in crunch time. The next four guys don’t.

Will Howard make your team a lock for the playoffs every single year? Yes. However, he’s not guaranteeing me a title unless I get some really good play from other players. That’s why he comes no higher than #5.

4. Dirk Nowitzki

Just look at what Dallas did with him in the lineup last year. I could spend hours talking about how good he is in crunch time, how effective he is on the high post, and how great of a leader he is on and off the floor.

However, I’ll just leave it at this. Dirk has the second most unstoppable shot of all time…and that will give you a chance in every single game.

3. Derrick Rose

Last season’s MVP, and for good reason. With the way the rules are currently set up, there is just no real way to guard any point guard that is quick.

Rose was getting by his man with ease – before he had a jump shot. They were standing five feet off of him, and he was STILL blowing by them. Now that he has a more consistent jumper, he’s basically a cheat code.

He’s also an incredible defender, and hates to lose. I watched him single-handedly put the Pacers out of the playoffs last season. He’s a winner, and on the right team, he will win it all.

2. Chris Paul

The evolved Isiah Thomas. As long as he’s healthy, nobody makes his team better. Look at the Hornets’ roster, and give me one reason that they made the playoffs last year that doesn’t include “Chris Paul did…”

He can score at will, but chooses not to until his team is firing on all cylinders. He singlehandedly destroyed the Lakers in the playoffs, and did it in beautiful fashion.

He’s Coach K’s choice for PG on Team USA, and if not for the last guy on this list, he would be the best player in the league.

1. LeBron James

Trust me, I’m as much of a LeBron hater as anybody. But let’s talk about LeBron for a moment.

Is it his fault that he’s literally never had a competent GM putting together the right type of team around him? Remember, you get the first pick, and then you don’t get to pick again until #26. That means that there will be NO teams in this league with multiple superstars. In fact, very few teams in this league will even have multiple All-Stars. We have turned our new NBA into a socialistic league – all of the talent is divided up “equally.” If the teams were equal, would you really put your money on anybody else?

Look, I understand that LeBron shrunk in crunch time last year. That was the product of not knowing his place on the team. It’s easy to forget that LeBron took this team to the NBA Finals…by himself. It’s easy to forget that a team whose second best players were Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas NEARLY beat a team that had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo.

In what world were the Cavs SUPPOSED to win any of those series’?

Give me LeBron with the #1 pick. At #26, I’ll take Marc Gasol. Then with #51, I’ll “reach” a little bit and pick Jason Terry (ranked #55 in ESPN’s rankings).

There’s really no way the #1 pick could be anybody else.

Would I take LeBron James on the Heat over Dirk Nowitzki on the Mavericks? Maybe not.

But if I can build my team around him, and all the other teams are equal, to me, it’s a no-brainer.


What do you think?

Which selections do you agree or disagree with?

Let’s get some fun conversation going below.

Jon Washburn @The_Dr_Twitch

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