Finally, what dozens of you have possibly been waiting for in between bouts of NBA lockout boredom: the finale of SBNation.com's Top 99 NBA Players of 2015. Who will go No. 1? Which top-nine selection will be the most outrageous? Will Chris Paul beat Deron Williams? Let's find out.
Previous editions can be found right about here:
99-91 | 90-82 | 81-73 | 72-64 | 63-55
54-46 | 45-37 | 36-28 | 27-19 | 18-10
9. Kevin Love
The best rebounder in the league -- he was No. 2 in offensive rebound rate, No. 1 in defensive rebound rate and No. 1 in total rebound rate ... and happened to average better than 15 rebounds per game -- is also, at least for now, a 20-ppg scorer. Love was the only good thing about about the Minnesota Timberwolves last season, making the All-Star team over LaMarcus Aldridge and bringing the name Moses Malone back into the conversation, where I hope it stays forever.
If we're going to be touting the new Zach Randolph and building skylights in DeMarcus Cousins' ceiling, we absolutely need to respect insane production like this. At this rate, Love is going to be as productive as Blake Griffin and Aldridge through his prime, and that's no small matter. His defense is an issue, but that's not unique, and he's young, and awful defense is a contagion on terrible teams. In a couple years, with a better supporting cast and a coach who can coach, Love might be OK over there.
On offense? He's simply brilliant, and you have to respect that. -- Ziller
SHARP: This seems a little high for a guy who's not an elite scorer and average (at best) on defense. Don't get me wrong; Kevin Love's totally awesome, and he's fun to watch, but at 6'9 with plenty of limitations, it's hard to imagine him being more valuable than someone like Al Horford in 2015.
ZILLER: You sound like draft pundits circa 2008. Wait, I mean draft pundits who were obviously wrong circa 2008. When you are one of the very best rebounders in the NBA and a legit 20-point scorer, why on Earth does "6'9 with plenty of limitations" matter? Isn't there overwhelming proof that for Love it doesn't matter?
PRADA: I don't doubt Love's scoring or rebounding, but I do doubt his defense, especially relative to the guys up in the top 10. To me, if you're going to be a top 10 player, you have to be able to play both ends well. Love's defense is more than "an issue;" it's often an abomination. That's why I really think he's about 5-10 spots too high on this list, and it's why I have this next guy over him.
8. LaMarcus Aldridge
See, the difference between Aldridge and Love is that Aldridge plays both ends. He's not as productive with the counting stats as Love, nor is he quite as good as a rebounder. But as a coach, you can do so much more with Aldridge's skill set than with Love's. On offense, you can give him the ball in the low post and trust that he'll make the right reads. That's something you can't do with Love. Aldridge is also a phenomenal pick and pop player, especially in Portland's system. Love, on the other hand, is a high-post and pick and pop guy exclusively at this point. As a coach, you can't build an offense around Love yet. You can around Aldridge. It's a subtle difference, and it's not meant to put down Love, but it's also a significant one.
Defensively, Aldridge is worlds better. He can guard power forwards and centers equally. He's phenomenal as a pick and roll defender. He has the length needed to contest shots. He's quick enough to hedge on guards trying to turn the corner. He's strong enough to stop guys in the post. Love? He grabs rebounds, but otherwise, his defensive contributions stink. Rebounding is a part of defense, but only after you force misses. Aldridge helps force misses. Love cleans up once his teammates force misses, which isn't very often.
I get that Aldridge isn't as efficient as Love, but remember that efficiency doesn't exist in a vacuum. A team run through Aldridge on both ends of the floor last year finished with 48 wins. He had help, of course, but he was the cornerstone to everything they did on both ends of the floor. Love will never reach that point, so to me, his value can only reach a certain point. --Prada
SHARP: Well he was going to be my sleeper pick at 10, and instead we had to roll the dice with DeMarcus Cousins. But yeah, if anything this could be too low. LMA does everything well, and especially as the Blazers begin to build their offense and roster around his talent, Aldridge should become one of the two or three best big man in the league. This almost makes up for Austin Rivers in the top 15.
ZILLER: I don't understand Aldridge over Love at all. LMA is a slightly more productive scorer -- especially when you consider the pace each's team plays at -- but is far less efficient than Love, doesn't come remotely close to rebounding as well as Love and isn't heaps and mounds better defensively. If LMA had his own offensive production and Al Horford's defense, I'd consider the case. But the defensive gap between LMA and Love isn't massive. Noticeable, real ... but not massive.
A 25-year-old LMA averaged about 22 and nine. A 25-year-old Chris Bosh averaged 24 and 11. A 25-year-old Zach Randolph averaged 24 and 10. A 25-year-old Shareef Abdur-Rahim (God bless his soul) averaged 21 and nine. I think LMA is an incredible player who fits Portland perfectly. But he is simply not going to be one of the 10 best players in the NBA in 2015.
PRADA: Except Aldridge is heaps and mounds better defensively than Love. The defense gap is more than massive; it's the size of the Grand Canyon. And personally, I think you could make an argument that Aldridge is better defensively than Horford.
ZILLER: Better than Horford? Now you're just talking crazy.
Love is a few years younger than Aldridge. He's had an abominable coach for the past two seasons. You don't think he can become a good defender within the next four years? Consider how uneven Aldridge was a couple years ago on both ends. You're completely ignoring that Love has more room for growth due to coaching and youth.
7. Deron Williams
He'll be 31 in 2015, but assuming he lands in a good situation (be it with the Nets or somewhere else), it's hard to imagine a scenario where he drops below the NBA's Top 10. He's deadly off the dribble, he's the best shooter of all the elite point guards, and where others may start to lose a little quickness, Deron's strength will still make him a nightmare of a matchup for pretty much everyone. -- Sharp
ZILLER: I think he'll remain with the Nets long-term, and if his assist numbers after the trade last year are any indication -- one every three minutes -- his production will be huge. The important thing to me is how quickly and seamlessly he bonded on the court with Brook Lopez, and how easily he fell in under the notoriously demanding Avery Johnson. We've seen Avery struggle with young PGs (Devin Harris) and older ones (Jason Kidd); D-Will is the first star-in-his-prime that Johnson has had, and there have been no issues whatsoever. It was a short half-season, of course, but things look promising up there in Newark/Brooklyn.
PRADA: Yeah, he'll bounce back. This seems fair.
6. Chris Paul
With a better supporting cast, CP3 would have had an MVP award by now. Consider that his designated shooters last season were Trevor Ariza and Marco Bellineli. TREVOR ARIZA AND MARCO BELLINELI. He still averaged almost 10 assists per game. New Orleans is built almost completely for defense, from Ariza to Emeka Okafor to Monty Williams' style, yet Paul continues to produce absurdly efficient numbers. I don't dare imagine him in an up-tempo style for fear I'll go into a catatonic state of ecstacy.
Before it comes up: I don't want to hear about durability. Despite his injuries, he missed just two games last season. The two seasons in which he's missed substantial time were not because of chronic injuries. Basketball players get hurt. It happens. Nothing in Paul's history suggests he'll be TKO'd by age 29. -- Ziller
PRADA: I do think, though, that there was a subtle difference in Paul's game last year where you could see it being due to injuries. Take the month of February, for example, where he averaged just 14 and nine as his Hornets tumbled down the West standings. The old Paul would have carried the Hornets on his back and pushed them through that month. Last year's Paul, though, was strangely passive, especially late in games. It's a small difference, and maybe it was due to it being the first year back from knee surgery, but it's enough to make me worry a bit about where he'll be in four years.
Also, given that the Hornets have been one of the slowest-paced teams in the league ever since Paul rose to stardom, we can assume that Paul is the one dictating the slow pace. Therefore, imagining Paul on an up-tempo team does nothing for me in terms of his value.
ZILLER: Byron Scott, Tim Floyd (essentially) and Monty Williams were CP3's coaches. Scott is famously down-tempo, and Williams is singularly focused on implementing a Nate McMillan-style offense in New Orleans. Coaches do matter.
5. Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose probably didn't deserve to win the 2011 MVP, but even a Rose skeptic would have to admit that he was one of the 5-10 best players in the league at age 22. They would also have to admit that few players took a bigger jump from year-to-year than Rose did from 2010 to 2011. That jump was the product of hard work on very specific elements of his game. His jump shot may have become overrated a bit, but it was enough of a threat to keep defenses honest. His passing also improved, as did his finishing ability around the rim. These aren't accidents.
Now, Rose is working on new tricks like a post game and playing off the ball. Considering how quickly he improved last summer, he should add these elements to his game in no time. Once he does, I suspect his efficiency will improve, because he'll have more diverse ways to score.
Remember: four years is a long time. Consider how far Rose got in one year. Now, lay that out over four years. -- Prada
ZILLER: I don't think Rose will continue to make incredible leaps in production, because he was so, so good toward the end of last season. But he has room to gain in efficiency, which should get him a couple more points per game if he continues to dominate the Bulls offense. That said, I think there's only one team in the NBA who wouldn't trade their point guard for Rose right now: the Wizards. Every other team -- Hornets, Nets, Kings, Thunder ... everyone -- would do it because of Rose's combination of production and age.
4. Blake Griffin
A sample of what Clippers announcers had to say during a game back in January.
Announcer #1: "Look at this. LOOK AT THIS."
Announcer #2: "They do not have an answer for him."
Announcer #1: "...Ya think?"
In between plays:
"As great as he's playing, he's not out there saying 'I gotta get mine.' He makes the proper basketball play every single time."
After (another) basket down low:
"They just... They cannot deal with this manchild out there."
And finally, late in the game:
"He's a much more polished player than we had a right to dream"
Granted, those were Clipper announcers lavishing all that praise on him, but it's not that different from what we heard from anyone else. I think we're all curious to see how Blake Griffin can possibly build on what he started in 2011. Provided he stays healthy, top 5 in the NBA seems like a good bet for him in 2015, and in a league replete with elite point guards, a dominant forward like Griffin will be the ultimate difference-maker. -- Sharp
ZILLER: As a fan of a Western Conference team, he terrifies me more than any big man since pre-microfracture Amar'e Stoudemire. I remember laying awake at night wondering how Kenny Thomas would possibly stop Amar'e. I fear the J.J. Hickson-Blake Griffin nightmares are coming.
PRADA: My only worry with Blake: how is he going to develop defensively? Can he become a good defensive player too? If so, he's clearly the best power forward in basketball.
3. Dwight Howard
I'm not saying I would have taken Dwight Howard at No. 1 on this list had I had the option, but I would have thought about it. It's quite nearly impossible to imagine a scenario outside of injury that results in a player other than Dwight Howard winning the next four Defensive Player Of The Year awards; he is so much more dominant than everyone else on that side of the court that it's almost silly to consider the discussion. Add in that he's now one of the more reliable scorers in the game -- 22.9 points per game last season -- and has maintained his elite efficiency -- .616 True Shooting last year. What's not to like?
More random Dwight stats: he's 25, but he's already in the top 50 (No. 48) in total blocks in the history of the NBA. He's No. 2 all-time in total rebound rate (behind Dennis Rodman; if you include the ABA, Swen Nater also edges him). He's in the top 100 all-time in per-game scoring, and No. 4 in effective field goal percentage, a pretty bad-ass combo. (Of the top 10 in eFG, only Shaq and Artis Gilmore were also top-100 scorers.) Basically, he's not only the best big man in the league, but four years from now we might consider him the best big man in decades. -- Ziller
SHARP: There's no questioning Dwight Howard's talent, and really, the only question is whether he has what it takes to elevate himself to the top of this list. I don't think he does, but he's so good on both ends that he'll be entrenched in the top 3 for at least another five years.
And that whole time, people will claim he's the most valuable player in the NBA, conveniently ignoring that he's pretty much irrelevant in crunch time, and that for all his flashes of comic book dominance, it's rare to see Dwight Howard decide he's going to take over a game, then go do it, and have the Magic walk away with an easy win. He's gifted enough and valuable enough to justify inclusion in the NBA's Top 5 every year; making it to no. 1 is another story.
ZILLER: "Pretty much irrelevant in crunch time" on one side of the floor, kinda, which is what could have been said about former Best Player In The Games/MVPs Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Wilt Chamberlain. Not being able to reliably hit free throws is a flaw, yes. It's not a fatal flaw. He has more defensive value than any other player in the NBA, he's an ultra-efficient 23-ppg scorer and ... we're going to cap him because he sucks at shooting free throws? Tim Duncan is the unanimous Greatest Power Forward Ever, and we're going to doubt whether Dwight has the opportunity to be the best player in the game in a few years?
PRADA: Yup, I'm on #teamziller here. Dwight probably should have been the MVP last year when you consider his supporting cast.
2. LeBron James
I'm no LeBron fan, but he has to be No. 1 on this list. Consider what it takes to win a basketball game. You need to have a go-to guy on offense that can occupy defenders and create openings for your teammates. You need to have an elite team defensive scheme, anchored by strong perimeter defenders and one or two big men who can help them out. You need guys who can be huge threats to score in transition and get you easy points. You need guys who can rebound. You need guys who are unselfish, both in temperament and in practice. Ultimately, you need two-way guys who are capable of doing what you need in multiple areas of the game. Now, once you have this, you can divide your labor through specialization, but it's such a massive luxury to have a guy who can do many things.
Now, let's consider LeBron for a second. If LeBron is weak as a player, it's only in two areas: crunch-time decision-making offensively and as a post-up player. In every other aspect of the game, he is a top-five player. He's a top-five passer, a top-five defender, a top-five scorer, a top-five rebounder for his position and a top-five guy in transition. As a general manager, if you have LeBron on your team, you have fewer fatal holes to fill. Finding someone who can create a shot isn't as difficult as finding an elite defensive big man, an elite passer or an elite wing defender that can check the opponent's best scorers.
That's why I would have put LeBron at the top of my list over the guy at No. 3 and the guy at No. 1. Think of building a team like a checklist. When you have LeBron on your team, you can check many more boxes than anyone else in the league. Could you check more with Michael Jordan in his prime? Of course. Is LeBron annoying? Sure, absolutely. As a player, though, nobody does more now, and nobody will do more in four years. --Prada
SHARP: Okay, once you get down to choosing between the top two or three players in the entire league, it gets really subjective. Not that the first 90 picks weren't subjective, too, but here it comes down to how we assess value, and what makes the "best" player in the NBA. On that note, my response to LeBron is also a part of my argument for KD at No. 1.
ZILLER: Can't argue against LeBron at No. 2, though I would have had to convince myself to take a 30-year-old LBJ over a 29-year-old Dwight. I'm actually curious if Prada would have taken Kevin Durant at No. 2 if Sharp had gone with James at the top, or if he would have went with Howard, Griffin or Jordan Crawford.
PRADA: Please. I clearly would have gone with Gilbert Arenas.
(Yes, I would have taken Dwight over the next guy on this list).
1. Kevin Durant
I don't know why Ziller gave me the No. 1 pick, because I was obviously going to screw everything up and take Durant. Anyway, to anticipate some criticism ...
He may never be as complete a player as LeBron James, but LeBron James is also a more complete player than Dirk Nowitzki. Who would've ranked No. 1 if we ranked the top 100 players in this year's playoffs?
Do we really think that being great at everything automatically makes one player more valuable than the player who's really great at one thing? Kevin Durant's 11 years younger than Dirk, and at 22 years old, he's already 90 percent as deadly as the guy who just stormed through the playoffs and ran away with the NBA title.
So what if he makes up the difference and then some? As he improves his handle, gets stronger, and develops a post game, Durant only gets more unstoppable. As he learns how to pick his spots, he only gets more efficient. He may not have the assists of some of his peers, but Ziller's already done the yeoman's work to upend the fallacy that great shooters don't create shots. Defensively, he'll never be as dominant as LeBron or Dwight Howard, but that's okay too. Does it matter that he's 40 percent of LeBron on defense if he becomes 130 percent of Dirk as a scorer?
When we talk about "best" in basketball, what matters most doesn't have to be overall mastery. That's what's great about basketball. You can be dominant in every conceivable category, but what separates the greats from the greatest will always be somewhat ineffable.
Even the best, most well-rounded players and teams don't always win. Even among the most gifted handful of basketball players in the entire world, it comes down to a battle of will, and sheer force of personality that propels teams and players past one another. It's easy to poke holes in this myth, but the 2011 Finals offer a pretty compelling counterpoint.
Anyway, four years from now, when LeBron James is still averaging almost a triple double in Miami while Kevin Durant averages 35 ppg on his own 60-win team, we'll still be having this argument. They're both basketball aliens surrounded by mortals, and it'll be the defining rivalry of this generation. They'll probably settle it in the Finals, too. And I think Kevin Durant will win for reasons I can't really describe, except to say that it's why I love basketball. -- Sharp
ZILLER: I'm mighty sympathetic to the argument for specialization in terms of scoring vs. passing -- I don't want Dirk to be a set-up man, and I don't want KD to do that either -- but the defense stuff is just impossible to overlook when it comes to Durant, LeBron and Dwight. Yes, it does matter if KD is 40 percent of LeBron on defense if he becomes 130 percent of Dirk on offense. KD is a top five offensive player and maybe average on defense on a good day. LeBron is a top five offensive player and a top five defensive player. That matters quite a bit.
PRADA: Wait a minute, are you seriously saying that it doesn't matter that Durant is 40 percent the defender LeBron is if he's 130 percent the scorer? There are two ends to this game.
Anyway, most of my counterpoints to this answer are above in the LeBron section. Two things make me worry about Durant. First, he didn't really grow much as a player last year. I didn't really see him add a ton of tricks to his game, which is why it doesn't surprise me that physical defenders were able to take him out of his element in the playoffs for the second year in a row. Second, while specialization is fine, from a team-building exercise, it's a bit worrisome. When you think of Oklahoma City's issues, one of the first that springs to mind is their limited scoring options outside of Durant and Westbrook. Another is that the Thunder's offense is so one-on-one driven. The Thunder start two offensive zeroes and another guy who is limited at this point. If Durant is a better defender and passer, do they need to do that? Do they have to continue to cover up for his holes?
That's my issue with putting Durant so high. Even Dirk, who Sharp irresponsibly compared Durant to in his blurb, was a more complete player than Durant. Dirk can now pass out of double teams. He can set up shop anywhere and ward off defenders trying to get the ball. Ask coaches around the league, and they'll even tell you Dirk's defense, especially off the ball in Dallas' zone, has improved dramatically. Without all those improvements, Dallas doesn't win this title. With Durant, you're getting the league's best scorer, but is he a complete player? Can he get there in four years? I guess Sharp has more faith than me that he can.
Thus ends the grand experiment of the Top 99 of 2015. But we have a few more contributions to the discussion. On Thursday, SBNation.com contributor Jonathan Tjarks will look at the top 100 current players according to two popular lists ... and where those players were four years ago. Would they have made a Top 99 of 2011 list created in 2007? On Friday, SB Nation team bloggers will respond to the biggest snubs of the list. We may get called bad names, but that's okay.