Franchise Guys: Top 30 NBA Players (10–6)
10. Klay Thompson- SG, Golden State Warriors
Thompson might be the second best shooter of all time behind his teammate Steph Curry. Thompson is a high IQ player that seems to always be in the right spot at the right time. Watch the subtle movement Klay makes from the corner to the wing, giving Curry an angle to pass him the ball:
Andre Roberson makes a mistake by briefly helping off of Thompson, and Klay makes him pay with a quick release trey-ball. Thompson made 276 three-pointers last season, the most ever among players not named Steph Curry.
Thompson is not just a knockdown shooter, he is also a top-flight defender. Klay guarded Kyrie for the entirety of the Finals, and also guarded LeBron for stretches, holding his own against both. Thompson could very possibly make both an All-NBA and an All-Defense team in 2017. Klay’s lateral quickness is underrated, and his ability to stay in front of his man is elite.
Is Thompson anything other than a glorified “3 and D” guy? Maybe not. That’s not a terrible thing because his three-point and defensive acumen are both outstanding, but if Thompson played on a team without Steph Curry and Draymond Green, would he still be a star? It’s tough to criticize Klay for having good teammates, but it’s fair to question whether or not he would be nearly as successful on his own.
The Bottom Line
The list of players to average at least 3.5 made three-pointers per game for an entire season is short; Steph Curry in 2015 (3.6), Steph in 2016 (5.1!), and Klay Thompson in 2016 (3.5). It’s unfortunate that Curry and Thompson play on the same team because most of the shooting praise is directed towards Curry (rightfully so), leaving Klay in the shadows. But Thompson can light it up. In my opinion, he’s also one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, something I can’t say about Steph Curry. It’ll be interesting to see if/how much Thompson has to sacrifice as the Warriors absorb Kevin Durant, another upper-echelon star who is a great shooter. Needless to say, Golden State will be fun to watch this season.
9. James Harden- SG, Houston Rockets
Behind former teammate Kevin Durant, James Harden is likely the second-best scorer in the NBA. The Beard does it in a variety of ways; isolation, pick and roll, drives, inside, outside, you name it.
Harden scored more points in isolation (524) than anybody else in the league, and by a wide margin, as second place finisher Carmelo Anthony scored 374 points out of isolation. When isolated one-on-one, Harden loves to go to his patented stepback move:
Harden was also among the league leaders when coming off of a ball screen, scoring 588 points and netting an efficient 0.97 points per possession. The Beard is also a creative passer out of the pick and roll, and has the ability to drop nifty dimes like this on his way to averaging 7.5 assists per game:
James Harden is at his best in transition, where he relentlessly attacks the defense, drawing contact and converting And-1s. The Beard uses euro-steps and awkward one-two moves to initiate contact, and finished third in the league in converted three-point plays with 46:
Opposing defenders know that Harden is looking to initiate contact, and are forced to play “hands-up” defense, conceding easy finishes so as to not commit a foul:
In 2015–16, Harden joined Jerry West and the great World B. Free as the only guards in NBA history to attempt more than 830 free throws in a season. Harden has led the league in attempted free throws for each of the last two seasons, and he has converted those chances at an 86.4 percent clip, making him a highly efficient scorer.
Harden catches heat for his defense, or lack thereof, and rightfully so. But the Internet has blown Harden’s defensive shortcomings out of proportion. When engaged, Harden can be an average defender, but too often does The Beard lose sight of his man, allowing backdoor cuts for easy finishes. The bigger issue is Harden’s effort defensively. Walking or trotting back on defense has become a habit for Harden, and when his teammates see their leader giving half effort, they do it to. Last season, the Rockets allowed the third most points off of turnovers, tied for the most second chance points conceded, and gave up the eighth most points in transition; all areas that directly correlate to a team’s effort, and it all starts with Harden.
Harden’s high usage (he finished second in the NBA last year with a rate of 32.5) can ostracize his teammates. The Beard is such a ball-dominant player that his teammates spend most of the time standing and watching. Harden’s assist numbers are inflated because he’ll spend 22 seconds of a possession holding the ball in isolation, then play hot potato with a teammate who is forced to launch a bad shot. Sometimes these go in, netting an assist for Harden, but these shots mostly miss their mark. These types of possessions were a big reason why Houston suffered a disappointing season last year.
The Bottom Line
Harden is such a dynamic talent offensively and is one of the most difficult players to defend in the league. Harden fell out of favor with many because of his showing up to training camp out of shape, his lack of defense, and his poor effort, leading to him not being selected to an All-NBA team. Any player that averages 29/6/8 should be an All-League selection, so while Harden dogged it defensively, it’s ridiculous for him to be snubbed from an All-NBA squad.
8. Paul George- SF, Indiana Pacers
One of the top two-way talents in the NBA, George is a long, versatile wing athlete that also has a sweet shooting stroke. George is capable of playing the 2, 3, or 4 all at high levels thanks to his all-around talents.
George loves to drive hard to the basket and initiate contact, levitating a half-second longer than the defender for an and-one:
George has a feathery touch, especially from midrange. His go-to move is an in-and-out crossover that leads to a pull up going to his left. The move puts George’s defender on their heels long enough for PG13 to get his shot off:
George’s wingspan and athleticism also make him a threat defensively. He’s been named to an All-Defensive team three of the last four years, with the only year he missed being 2014–15, when he only played in six games due to a nasty broken leg.
Disclaimer: As we get deeper and deeper into this list, these sections will get more and more nitpicky. There’s a reason these players are the best at what they do. Let’s continue.
I’d like to see George be more efficient. For a skilled, long wing, George shot only 59.8 percent around the rim last season. That number needs to go up considering George’s talent and length. Overall, PG13 shot 41.8 percent in 15–16, a number a few percentage points below the league average. I want to see George become more of an efficient scorer rather than a volume shooter.
The Bottom Line
It’s great to have Paul George back on the court after the horrifying compound leg fracture he suffered on live TV a couple of summers ago. The new look Pacers will be an intriguing team to watch, with fresh faces like Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young set to make their debuts in the Hoosier state. How George adjusts his game to accommodate these new additions will determine how far the Pacers go.
7. Damian Lillard- PG, Portland Trail Blazers
One of the most electric scorers in the NBA, Damian Lillard can get hot in an instant. Dame is also one of the most explosive guards in the league, jetting past defenders at will. Lillard uses his quickness to set up his outside jumper with one hard dribble into his shot pocket:
The hard hesitation dribble makes it seem as if Lillard is about to drive, so the defender puts his hands down and takes a slight hop backwards. That little misstep gives Dame the space he needs to hoist a trey. Lillard made the fourth most three-pointers in the NBA last season thanks in large part to moves like this.
Part of what makes Lillard so tough to guard is that he will shoot from anywhere in the gym. By taking the lid off the defense with long-range bombs, Lillard can then blow past his opponent to the rim:
However, Lillard’s willingness to pump up shots from anywhere on the floor can come back to bite him. Dame is prone to posting terrible stat lines if his shot isn’t falling as a result of his “keep shooting” mentality. Sometimes players need to pack it in and concede that it’s just not their night.
Lillard could also be better defensively. His small stature can cost him against bigger, stronger opponents, and he sometimes commits bad fouls for and-ones.
The Bottom Line
I thought Damian Lillard should have gotten more consideration for the MVP last season. His team was projected to win less than 30 games, yet Lillard led the Trail Blazers to 44 wins and a number five seed in the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. The Trail Blazers will no longer sneak up on teams, so let’s see how they perform with the burden of expectations.
6. Russell Westbrook- PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
Ferocious. Intense. Fierce. Raging. Many people’s preseason pick to win the MVP, Russell Westbrook is a hurricane on the basketball court. Westbrook is like a cross between the Tasmanian Devil and a roadrunner unleashed in an NBA arena. Russ does everything at his absolute maximum capacity, and he plays with such force and energy for long periods of time on a nightly basis. It’s incredible. The players to ever average at least 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 10 assists in a single season: Oscar Robertson (’62, ’64, ’65, ’66) and Russell Westbrook (‘16). Not bad company.
Westbrook relentlessly attacks the rim with such fearlessness and ferocity, he’s a one-man wrecking crew:
Poor Manu Ginobili gets driven into press row. Westbrook is an explosive finisher, but can also set up his teammates for easy shots, as he finished last season second in assists per game (10.4) behind Rajon Rondo.
Russ plays with such intensity that he sometimes gets out of control. Westbrook committed the second most turnovers in the NBA last year, and his crazy adventures to the rim are the reason why. Instead of making the simple play, Westbrook would launch horrible shots. Despite shooting an ice cold 29.6 percent from deep, Westbrook still chucked over four treys per game, an inefficient strategy for obvious reasons. The shots were even worse when considering that Westbrook had Kevin Durant, one of the best scorers ever, on his team.
The Bottom Line
You know what you’re going to get with Russell Westbrook, and you have to take the good with the bad. He is going to leave the arena every night with an empty clip; he’s not going to go out without a fight. Now that KD is with the Warriors, Westbrook will truly have free reign to do whatever he wants. We could see some gaudy stat lines from Russ this year, which is why many are picking him as the favorite for MVP.