Twenty-seven years ago, NBA commissioner David Stern took over the league and made a conscious decision to start marketing individual players specifically, even over the team itself. And thus, the NBA as a league of stars and personalities was born. Today, that fact is more true than ever, seeing as players are now holding one-hour specials to announce their free agency decisions or holding entire teams in limbo as they play out the final year of their contract in a location they don't seem to want to be in.
NBA aficionados like to think that they're above that, especially in the choices they make for which teams to watch on a regular basis. We say we love watching the champion Los Angeles Lakers, the cagey Boston Celtics, the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder, the new-look Los Angeles Clippers or (though we may not admit it) the superteam that is the Miami Heat. But really, what we're saying is that we want to watch Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin or LeBron James do the breathtaking things they do on the basketball court. Those players are the draws. In the meantime, we accept that Derek Fisher, Thabo Sefolosha, Randy Foye and Mario Chalmers come with the package.
So with that in mind, I wanted to put together a list of the league's most entertaining players to watch as we approach All-Star Weekend. This is not a list of the best players in the league, though one's ability has a lot to do with it, of course. Nobody rushes to their TV or pays top dollar for good seats to see someone who stinks. But that is not the only factor at play here. Great players can be boring or frustrating, and role players can emerge as exciting spectacles in and of themselves.
Without further ado ...
(note: all images are screenshots I've taken this season).
450. Gilbert Arenas: Watching one of the league's most explosive offensive players morph into a 33-year-old Kevin Ollie has been nothing short of depressing. Arenas still can find people with passes, but he can't shoot anymore and he has no lift going to the basket. A man who once leaped into foes like they weren't there now passes the second someone even hints at cutting off the lane. Only three years and $60 million to go on the contract!
440. Ron Artest: No Ron, Lakers fans aren't out to get you because you are Ron Artest. They're out to get you because you can't make a jumper, still shoot off-balanced 20-footers as if you can and aren't moving your feet on defense like you were last year.
420. Anthony Parker: The quintessential Cleveland Cavalier: somewhat useful three years ago on a good team, completely useless now on a bad team.
400. Andray Blatche: NBA fans tend to like players who know their limitations, understand what they do best on the court and demonstrate growth by owning up to their mistakes. Andray Blatche embodies the complete opposite of all of those qualities.
300. Tracy McGrady: He's kind of like Arenas, except a little bit better because he is actually able to use his size to shoot over people. Given that he was completely useless last year, we have to move him up a little for being competent again.
250. Brook Lopez: We like our big men to rebound, right? Well, Lopez is currently sporting a rebound percentage of 9.8 percent. That would place him in a tie for 13th in the league ... among small forwards.
200. Jeff Green: Continues to be the one piece that holds the Oklahoma City Thunder back. He shoots nearly four threes a game despite hitting 30.4 percent of those shots, and also shoots 2.3 shots a game from midrange. He also is powerless to stop most power forwards, due to his size. I spend entire games wondering what everyone around the league sees that I'm not seeing, and it sours my viewing experience.
175. Chris Bosh: Bosh gets a lot of dirt for being a bad player that's really not deserved. When he went down for a brief stretch in late January, the Heat badly missed his perimeter shooting and high-post passing. But the style of game he plays is, frankly, soft. The Heat need it, because it provides them the necessary spacing to run their offense and let LeBron James and Dwyane Wade go to work, but for someone who was much more in Toronto and has a less-than-ideal reputation leaguewide, it's frustrating. The Bosh of past years wasn't afraid to mix it up in the paint. The Bosh of 2010-11 plays like he is James' and Wade's lapdog, even if he may not actually be.
150. Deron Williams: Williams is putting up great numbers this season, but I think he was a pain to see play even before coach Jerry Sloan resigned. Williams seems to crave more freedom, but has done little to justify it with the way he handles the flow of the game. He has the ball in his hands more and is having a good shooting year, but it all looks choppy. He's forcing too many fast breaks (here's a great breakdown by Sebastian Pruiti), breaking too many plays in half-court sets and struggling to mesh with Al Jefferson. Utah is among the worst first-quarter teams in basketball, and that's bad because that's when a point guard is supposed to settle everyone down. Regardless, it makes for an interesting discussion about where Williams should be placed.
130. Baron Davis: It's funny how the best athlete in the game today (as well as DeAndre Jordan) can make you look much better as a point guard. That said, Davis still pounds the rock a lot, and it's depressing to see him be unable to drive by guys like Ramon Sessions.
110. DeMarcus Cousins: He still has a looooong way to go with his post moves, but if he ever improves them, watch out. Soon, he'll be driving opponents' instead of his own organization crazy .
90. JaVale McGee: Want to know what's going through McGee's head whenever he touches the ball on offense? Just consult this handy guide.
70. Thaddeus Young: The 76ers as a whole are a fun watch, with a team full of athletes that get after you defensively. Of all of them, I like Young's game the best, because he's able to slash and slither his long frame around the rim for some cool finishes.
65. John Wall: The breathtaking plays haven't been as numerous as you might expect, but that's in large part because Wall has been hurt and his teammates are terrible. When he's played, he's still given you a glimpse of his speed, and that's enough for now. The jumper will come, as will better teammates.
60. Carmelo Anthony: Anthony was never that entertaining relative to his peers because he misses a lot of shots, scores a lot of ugly ones and rarely does it off good ball movement, but with the trade rumors surrounding him, we're seeing about 90 percent of what he's capable of giving.
55. Pau Gasol: Great start, so-so middle for Gasol, who often looks like he is going through the motions. Fear not, though. By playoff time, he should have it in gear.
45. Grant Hill: At 38, Hill is the unsung hero of the Suns, covering up their lack of size by guarding everyone from Tony Parker to Blake Griffin. He's also a competent three-point shooter and remains one of the league's best running on the break. If you can't get over that he's not the same player he was over a decade ago, then that's your loss, because Hill is one of the league's best role players.
36. Tim Duncan and 35. Kevin Garnett: Two guys still going relatively strong. One instigates, the other disappears until he is called upon.
30. Josh Smith: Have you ever wondered what Smith might look like witha competent jump shot? We finally have our answer this year. Smith is shooting 36 percent on three-pointers and 40 percent on shots from 16-23 feet -- not spectacular numbers, but certainly serviceable and a new career high for him. He's also rebounding (career-high 15 percent rebound percentage) and still passing enough, all without many of the mental lapses that plagued him early in his career. Joe Johnson is Mr. Consistent and Al Horford has been outstanding, but Smith has once again arguably been the team's most important player.
25. Eric Gordon: I wrote about Gordon here.
20. DeAndre Jordan: Blake Griffin's partner in the frontcourt is incredibly athletic himself, and if we're being honest, you're just as likely to see Jordan provide a breathtaking slam as you are Griffin during every game. Jordan also blocks shots, rebounds and at least tries to do all the dirty work you want your center doing. He's unpolished, but he's still fun to watch because you can see glimpses of something there.
19-18. Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge: Two very different players both coming into their own this season. One is relentless on the glass; the other has all the tricks in the post. One has changed his game by becoming more of a jump shooter; the other has changed his game by becoming less of a jump shooter. If you're a fan of watching players add new dimensions to their games from year-to-year and even in-season, then these guys are a pleasure.
17. Gerald Wallace: They don't call him "Crash" for nothing. Wallace is all over the place in a given game, kind of like a Scottie Pippen without the passing or the point guard ability. He goes coast-to-coast for layups, gets to the rim with long strides in the halfcourt, blocks shots, rebounds and now even shoots the three a little bit. Nobody sees him because he plays for the Bobcats, but he's tremendous. Rarely will you see a player who can potentially provide a highlight play in so many different areas.
16-15. Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen: You know exactly what you're getting with both of these guys, and yet, you can't help but marvel at how consistently they do what they do. Every team knows they need to play Nowitzki tight to prevent him from raining mid-range jumpers, and every team knows not to leave Allen open for three. Yet these two still find a way to get to their sweet spots on the floor.
14. Kevin Durant: This might seem a little low, but it's because he's ultimately a jump-shooter at this point. Seventy-five percent of his field goal attempts per game come outside of 10 feet, and other than that, you're really just seeing him shoot free throws. So while he has the ability to just nail a dagger in your heart at the best possible time, his actual game is about efficiency, not entertainment.
13. Steve Nash: He'd be higher if he still had some legitimate finishers instead of his current teammates.
12. Rajon Rondo: He still has a bad jumper, and I don't care how much people say it's improved. The percentage is higher than last year, but when you're being left wide open all the time from 16-23 feet, you should be hitting more than 41 percent of those shots. That's the only thing preventing me from putting him higher on this list.
11. Kobe Bryant: He has all the tricks, and a basketball purist has to love how he manages to control a game with his very presence. If he gets hot, he's capable of hitting shots that nobody else in the league can make. I'd put him higher if he had fewer games where he fired a bunch of bricks from bad spots on the floor. Even now, they still happen quite a bit.
10. Monta Ellis: Here's the guy not enough people appreciate for entertainment value. He's kind of like what Gilbert Arenas used to be, except without the 30-foot three-pointers. When he attacks the rim, he does it with incredible speed, allowing him to get all the way there even though he doesn't have a tremendous three-point shot. Only five guards (Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose and Tony Parker) take more shots at the rim, and none convert on as high a percentage once they get there. In transition, Ellis is unparalleled, except for maybe Parker. But whereas Parker finishes underneath you, Ellis finishes up, over and around you. Combine that with the energy of the Warriors' crowd, and few guys have as much swag in their game today.
9. Manu Ginobili: Nobody is craftier. Ginobili has the complete package, capable of hitting any shot from anywhere on the court. Some of the moves he uses are ones that nobody else even dreams of using. If you can get past the flopping thing (which is probably hard to do), you end up with a guard unlike any guard we've seen in years. How can you not appreciate that?
8. Amar'e Stoudemire: Just as much of a high-flyer as ever, and now, he gets more chances to shoot.
7. Dwyane Wade: His game has changed with LeBron James in town, but you still see glimpses of the high-flyer Wade used to be. You often have to watch the obscure games, though, to see it. In other words, avoid him against the Celtics.
6. Dwight Howard: He has improved his post moves, the one part of his game that could be frustrating to some. Given the turmoil the Magic have had this year, it's a testament to Howard that they even are as good as they are. He's probably my MVP if the season ended today. How can you not appreciate a center that so thoroughly dominates both ends of the floor?
5. Derrick Rose: In three years, there's a very good chance that Rose duplicates Wade's run to the 2006 title and just jumps into people to draw fouls. His first step is that quick, and he's getting better at finishing around the rim. For now, though, we'll stick him here, because as explosive and breathtaking as he is, he's still not quite the passer the guys above him on this list are.
4. Chris Paul: Maybe this is a personal preference, but I love seeing a point guard deliver a perfect pass in-rhythm to a shooter or a cutter to the basket more than one who can score at the rim. Rose is capable of doing incredible athletic things, but you just don't feel like he has complete control of a game's flow like Paul does at this point. It's not a knock on Rose, because nobody does, but it does mean that I prefer Paul to him from an entertainment standpoint. I'm sure others will disagree, and I'm fine with that. Let me enjoy the purest point guard in the game today instead.
3. Russell Westbrook: So then why is Westbrook higher? Simple: I think he's a better passer than Rose. It probably helps that he has Durant and a series of good finishers, but I see many more on-target passes from Westbrook than I do from Rose. He's become adept at the drop-off pass once he gets into the lane, and I've also seen a lot of growth in his ability to kick out to open shooters. Rose carries a larger load, so he gets more chances to take your breath away, but otherwise, Westbrook is my preference. He's not the leaper Rose is, but when he goes to the basket, it's like he's shot out of a cannon. As his jump shot and decision-making continues to improve, the league will take more notice.
2. LeBron James: Loathe him if you must, but just admit that he's capable of doing things nobody can do in this league, especially now that his post-up game and shot selection have gotten better.
1. Blake Griffin: I mean, really, did you expect anyone else?