Hardwood and Hollywood

NBA Season Preview 2017-18: Top 50 Players, 50-36

50. LaMarcus Aldridge (45 on ESPN, 31 on SI, 42 on SB Nation) 

-We kick off the Top 50 with disgruntled and disjointed San Antonio Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge. In retrospect, it’s not a total shock that the Aldridge/Spurs partnership hasn’t worked. We all knew that he wasn’t the prototypical Spur when San Antonio signed him in the Summer of 2015, but we trusted that he or the Spurs would adapt.

Aldridge never became the focal point of the offensive like he was in Portland, and that seems like the biggest problem. As a Blazer, Aldridge was force fed touches on the block and he thrived. We knew, and we can only assume that he knew, he wouldn’t get as many isolation touches as he did in Portland, but it was assumed in the Summer of 2015 that Aldridge would at least be the guy the Spurs relied on to get late shot clock buckets when the offense broke down. Thanks to Kawhi Leonard‘s evolution as a nearly unstoppable one-on-one scorer, that hasn’t been the case.

Aldridge has scored more efficiently with the Spurs than he did those last two MVP-caliber seasons in Portland, but the dip in touches has clearly been a problem. He still doesn’t fit in well with the exceptionally “Spursy” Spurs who make nine or ten passes on a possession until someone is wide-the-F-open, and he looks totally disinterested half of the time. The trade rumors likely haven’t helped his psyche, but hopefully LMA can play through all of that because it’s unlikely that the Spurs won’t entertain the idea of shopping him up until the trade deadline.

49. Harrison Barnes (58 on ESPN, 49 on SI, 41 on SB Nation) 

-Don’t ever forget that back in the Summer of 2016 there were actually people who suggested that the Warriors would be better off just keeping Harrison Barnes and other rotation players than pursuing Kevin Durant in Free Agency. I’m dead serious. You could read about it here, and here, and here. Amazing stuff.

48. Otto Porter (42 on ESPN, 53 on SI, 48 on SB Nation) 

-Just like Harrison Barnes, Porter is a fine, steady and skilled starting Small Forward in today’s in NBA. And yes, the Washington Wizards would be much better off if Kevin Durant took his place.

47. Jusuf Nurkic (44 on ESPN, 69 on SI, N/R on SB Nation) 

-Appropriately nicknamed “The Bosnian Beast,” Nurkic is a legitimate 7-foot banger with an old school assortment of clunky post moves in his arsenal. It isn’t always pretty, but Nurkic uses his body effectively enough to get defenders (most of whom are smaller in stature than him) off balance where he can take advantage with quick hooks or almost-textbook up-and-under’s. He’s not exactly Hakeem Olajuwon reincarnate, but he’s reliable, and even better, he was born with the big man passing gene. Though Nurkic doesn’t seen an abundance of post touches every game, he’s adept at finding and willing to pass to cutters or shooters on the opposite side of the floor.

Nurkic doubles as a physical and attacking rebounder who has posted at least 10 rebounds per 36 minutes ever since he entered the league; even when he couldn’t stay healthy early in his career, and when minutes were sparse in a crowded Center rotation in Denver. After the Nuggets shipped him off to Portland in February last season, Nurkic averaged a double-double (15 points, 10 boards, 3 assists, 2 blocks per game) in 20 games with the Blazers. Portland won 14 of those 20 games that Nurkic played in Black and Red.

The version of Nurkic we watched in those 20 games is probably pretty close to Peak Nurkic, so even though he’s only 23 years old fans shouldn’t count on Nurkic evolving into a transcendent star. He’s not Nikola Jokic, but he’s better than most casual fans — who likely would pronounce his name with a hard J at the front of “Jusuf” and a hard C at the end of “Nurkic” — realize. The Blazers sit behind a few loaded superpowers (or pseudo superpowers), but if Nurkic plays at the level he played at the tail end of last season, the Blazers have a solid enough Big 3 to snag one of the one or two postseason spots that are actually in question.

46. Myles Turner (36 on ESPN, 68 on SI, 50 on SB Nation) 

-Another name casual fans may not be too familiar with is Indiana Pacers big man Myles Turner. The Pacers were an afterthought in the Eastern Conference, a victim of a 1st Round sweep at the hands of the eventual Conference Champions, and they’ll be overlooked even moreso this year after trading Paul George for two rotation players over the summer. The one thing that Pacers fans can rejoice in and be excited about is the progression of My-Turn, their 3rd year stretch-five who won’t be an afterthought much longer.

Turner brings a unique skill-set to the table as a near-seven-footer, though in today’s NBA it’s becoming more and more normal. Turner has a feathery shooting touch from the outside; he only jacked 1.4 three’s per game last year, but he’ll shoot more next season and for good reason. Turner isn’t quite Nowitzki-ian, but he was more efficient on long two’s last season than noted mid-range marksman LaMarcus Aldridge was in his prime.

In reality, Turner is the mobile, floor-stretching, rim-protecting Center the Pacers didn’t have when they were battling the Big Three Heat teams a few years back. Those smaller Heat line-ups made it impossible for Roy Hibbert to be on floor; he wasn’t quick enough to defend in space and he couldn’t score consistently enough against smaller defenders. Throwing a second-year Turner into that fire could’ve backfired, but sooner or later he’ll thrive in that sort of spot.

Turner is already way ahead of the curve considering he’s been able to drink alcohol legally for less than 200 days. Thanks to those long arms, quick feet and even quicker hands, Turner ranked 3rd last season in blocks per game behind Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis. More important than that 3rd place finish are the little things he does well … Turner always works hard and makes the right rotations on that end, and it’s no guarantee that you’ll get that from even the most athletically or offensively gifted young bigs.

45. Avery Bradley (61 on ESPN, 54 on SI, 47 on SB Nation) 

-Even though the advanced stats don’t do Avery Bradley many favors, if one were to rely solely on the eye test then it’s no secret that Bradley is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league today. Bradley has twice made one of the two All-NBA Defensive Teams, and that doesn’t include last season, when despite receiving more votes than any other player in the Eastern Conference, Bradley didn’t make either All-Defensive Team.

Bradley is a miniature poor man’s Kawhi Leonard on the defensive end; he lurks passing lanes like an opportunistic Corner Back and is one of the few defenders in the league who can stalk and harass opposing ball-handlers into coughing up turnovers in the open court. He’s got speedy hands and a long wing span and is as technically sound defensively as anybody else … it’s a pleasure to watch him grind defensively.

Bradley has come along as an offensive weapon, but he’s still reliant on others to help him create offense. He’s a smart, timely cutter and an above average spot-up shooter, but he’s in danger of being lost in the shuffle playing for a Pistons team that lacks a pass-first point guard or smart passing bigs who can best utilize what Bradley can do best.

44. Eric Bledsoe (37 on ESPN, 38 on SI, 36 on SB Nation) 

-Phoenix Suns Point Guard Eric Bledsoe is a known commodity at this point … he’s a physical freak of a point guard who has never lived up to the unfair “Mini-LeBron” moniker. He doesn’t make teammates decidedly better, carry overwhelmed teams to great heights, push the ghost in Chicago like no peer ever did or call the President of the United States a bum.

Bledsoe will likely never ascend to a level beyond where he is right now. He’s a perfectly capable starting Point Guard, certainly better than at least half of the other starting Point Guard’s in the NBA. He’s put up impressive numbers for four years now (19 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists per game) and since he’s only 27 years old, there’s not a reason to think those numbers will slip any time too soon. But Bledsoe has only once been a key contributor on any team that sniffed the Playoffs — the intoxicatingly entertaining 2013-14 Phoenix Suns — and he missed 39 games that season.

The biggest hole in Bledsoe’s resume is his inability to stay healthy. In a seven year career Bledsoe has never played back to back seasons where he missed fewer than twenty games due to injury. Last year the Suns shut Bledsoe down with 14 games remaining due to “knee soreness,” but anybody who pays attention to the league knows that Phoenix very well could’ve elected to say, “Yeah, we’re tanking” on the nightly injury report. If the trend continues, Bledsoe won’t hold up for the long haul this season. On second thought, the Suns shouldn’t be remotely competitive in the Western Conference, so maybe it will just be a bout of “knee soreness” again.

43. Andre Drummond (53 on ESPN, 51 on SI, 39 on SB Nation) 

-The Detroit Pistons reportedly sniffed around over the Summer to see what they could possibly get in return for their young centerpiece Center Andre Drummond, but what they heard back from teams around the league wasn’t encouraging. That’s mostly because, like Eric Bledsoe, Andre Drummond is what he is. Although I’d love to continue to hold out hope that Drummond will resemble 2009 Dwight Howard at some point in his career, I don’t plan on holding my breath while waiting for this metamorphosis to happen.

As Drummond enters his sixth year in the NBA, a major stylistic change in the way he plays basketball is unlikely. He’s a solid rim-running big who knows where his bread is buttered; he’ll never develop a smooth, or even consistently effective post-up game (Drummond averaged a pedestrian 0.73 points per post-up possession last season, per NBA.com), but that’s tolerable because he defends reasonably well (and it’s likely that he could continue to improve defensively) and he rebounds prolifically. Since the NBA-ABA merger, Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dennis Rodman are the only players who have averaged 13 or more rebounds per game at least four times through an entire NBA season.

42. Goran Dragic (47 on ESPN, 43 on SI, 43 on SB Nation) 

-Every die-hard who watches multiple League Pass games a night has random favorite players scattered throughout the league that they really enjoy watching, and Dragic is one of mine. I love his quirky herky-jerky lefty style; how masterfully he utilizes various change of pace and direction moves in both the half-court and running the break … his phenomenal body control attacking the basket, finding ways to either absorb or completely avoid contact on the shot … his patience to stop after beating his defender off the dribble once he gets to his spot in the paint, and let the defender blow right by him leaving him with a semi-wide-open shot near the rim. It’s all very calculated and delightful.

What I enjoy most about Dragic is his track record of leading teams that end up overachieving. Dragic was the catalyst of the aforementioned Phoenix Suns team that won 48 games and narrowly missed out on the Playoffs in 2014. He also averaged 23 points, 4 rebounds, 7 assists and made 56 percent of his shots last year during Miami’s unthinkable 13 game winning streak. Most recently, Dragic led the Slovenian National Team to the Eurobasket Championship after failing to medal in the previous twelve tournaments.

It’s doubtful that the Miami Heat will be able to keep up the 60-win pace they played in the second half of last season, but if they do manage to stay reasonably healthy they should safely secure a Playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

41. Devin Booker (60 on ESPN, 64 on SI, 35 on SB Nation) 

-There’s a little known rule when you’re ranking NBA players that reads “If a dude scores 70 points in an NBA game, all you need to do is show the highlights from that game for his section in the column.”

40. Al Horford (40 on ESPN, 30 on SI, 40 on SB Nation)  

-Al Horford is one of my favorite players to put on The Danny Granger Scale. You’re likely curious what The Danny Granger Scale is (or maybe you aren’t, I don’t know), so allow me to explain: In 2009 or 2010, right around the time that Danny Granger was starting to gain steam as a potential franchise guy. I didn’t buy it; I never bought it. I never even picked it up, looked at it, pondered whether or not I should buy it, or considered buying it if it went on sale. Nope. Wasn’t for me.

I always believed and continuously said that if Danny Granger wasn’t qualified to be the alpha dog for a great team, but if he were a teams third or fourth best guy, they were in good shape. And of course, I was proven right. It wasn’t until Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert (and George Hill and very briefly Lance Stephenson) came along that they Pacers pushed towards making the NBA Finals.

Though there has been much less debate about Horford’s alpha dog chops or lack thereof, he’s still a great example of a guy who isn’t quite equipped to lead an otherwise ordinary team to great heights, but if he’s your third best guy and he’s playing with two superior scorers, you’re in very good shape. It’s well-documented that Horford is a superb locker room guy and exists almost completely without ego. He’ll be the rock and the stabilizing influence for a team that turned over half of their roster from last year to this year.

39. Andrew Wiggins (57 on ESPN, 50 on SI, 33 on SB Nation)  

And speaking of The Danny Granger Scale … if Andrew Wiggins is your third best guy, you’re in really good shape. The Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t one of the four best teams in the Western Conference, but they’re knocking on that door.

38. Joel Embiid (32 on ESPN, 41 on SI, 44 on SB Nation)

-If you project Joel Embiid’s stats and impact over an 82 game sample size, it’s easy to argue that he’s one of the 10 or 15 best players in the entire NBA. Of course, the issue here is the fact that we are required to project his stats and impact over an 82 game sample size instead of simply looking at that body of work. Embiid only played 31 games last season, and that was after sitting out his first two years in the league because of various foot injuries.

The biggest question for Embiid moving forward will always be how many games and minutes he can give the 76ers. Even though it’s much more fun to think about how high Embiid’s ceiling is, how entertaining he is on social media or how ballsy it was for him to proclaim his nickname would be “The Process,” it’s impossible to have a discussion about Embiid without first considering if he’ll end up being one of the league’s best players, or one of history’s best “what if’s.”

Unlike Greg Oden, the former #1 overall pick who played in 105 total games, we know that Embiid produces at an All-NBA level. On a per 36 minute basis, Embiid (28 points, 11 rebounds, 3.5 blocks) posted the greatest Rookie season since Wilt Chamberlain, and this is one of those cases where the numbers definitely don’t tell the whole story. When Embiid was on the floor the Sixers were the equivalent of a 50-win Eastern Conference Playoff team. When he sat, or when he didn’t play period, Philadelphia was arguably the worst team in the entire league.

These figures aren’t fluky either. Embiid is truly a rare and borderline unfair two-way force. He’s been blessed with Olajuwon-esque footwork and three-point range. Had he played enough games to qualify, Embiid would have ranked second in blocks per game and first in defensive field goal percentage at the rim. There’s no other player in the league who could have a paragraph like this written about them. Embiid is truly a Unicorn. An awfully familiar kind of Unicorn, but a Unicorn nonetheless.

Unfortunately, the health and availability concerns disallow Embiid from climbing past the 37 players that are ahead of him. I need to see him play in back-to-backs, more than 25 minutes per game and at least fifty games first.

37. Khris Middleton (35 on ESPN, 35 on SI, 86 on SB Nation)

-Ever since I claimed that Khris Middleton was “The Homeless Man’s Kevin Durant” way back when he was still at Texas A&M, he’s been one of the most underappreciated players in the league. Things may swing the other way soon, and perhaps that statement is already dated. It’s starting to feel that way, especially after a bunch of well-constructed Middleton pieces were published on The Ringer, Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report with very straight-forward titles like “Khris Middleton Is Secretly One of the Best Players in the NBA,” “Khris Middleton: ‘I Told Myself I Was Invincible” and “Milwaukee Bucks’ Khris Middleton Is the NBA’s Most Overlooked Star.”

Those three publications weren’t wrong — though I do believe it’s safe to say that Middleton has a little too much confidence in himself if he truly thinks he’s invincible. Middleton remains one of the more underappreciated players in the league even as he’s being touted as such in various “This is a guy who isn’t underrated” profiles. To some degree it’s understandable that Middleton hasn’t caught on for many casual fans; not only does he play in a small market and alongside one of the most captivating young players in recent league history, the only skill Middleton has truly mastered is that of having no glaring weakness.

Middleton is a chameleon on both ends of the floor, which makes him a nightmare for opponents. Even though he’s not a breath-taking athlete in comparison to his peers, Middleton can successfully defend three positions, and there is no good answer for what kind of player should be defending him. With a 6’8″ frame and a 6’11” wingspan, a sweet shooting stroke and a notably high basketball IQ, Middleton is always able to figure out what the Bucks need. If he’s playing off the ball, defenses need to worry about Middleton as he floats around the perimeter while waiting to drill a spot up three. He can work mismatches with the best of them as well if the ball is in his hands; he’s equally capable of abusing defenders in the post or as he is simply shooting over them on the perimeter. He’s got a quick enough first step to slither past slower defenders on the perimeter, and he should continue to share (and excel in sharing) ball-handling/offense creation duties with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Malcolm Brogdon this season.

This isn’t to say Khris Middleton is a perfect basketball player … but he is an outrageously well-rounded one whose presence alone has made the Milwaukee Bucks a better basketball team. Last year is a great example: without Middleton in the lineup, the Bucks were 23-30 and in danger of missing out on the Playoffs for the second straight. With Middleton on the floor Milwaukee was 19-10, and remember, every single one of those 29 games with Middleton were played without Jabari Parker in the picture. That’s not an accident.

36. Carmelo Anthony (64 on ESPN, 37 on SI, 49 on SB Nation) 

-Here’s how I know Carmelo Anthony probably should be ranked ahead of every single player that sits behind him on the list (And definitely shouldn’t have been ranked the 64th best player in the NBA by ESPN) … if the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for any of those players instead of Carmelo Anthony, it wouldn’t feel or be as impactful as this trade does.

I haven’t been the biggest Carmelo Anthony guy over the years, and I’m definitely not going to overreact and suggest that his arrival in Oklahoma City now means that the Thunder are on an even playing field as the Golden State Warriors, but it’s ridiculous to think that Carmelo Anthony isn’t a Top 50 player in the league. He’s not a game-changing defensive presence, but he never has been (and very few guys in the NBA are so good on that end that he can actually cancel out some of the transcendent offensive players in the league) and he can still put the ball in basket.

I’m not worried about the fit (those three will find a way to co-exist) and I’m definitely not worried about how this hurts OKC’s defense (they traded Doug McDermott and Enes Kanter by the way, who were arguably the two worst defenders in Oklahoma City’s rotation last year). This trade was a win for the Thunder, a win for the NBA and a big win for Carmelo Anthony.

 

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Sonny Giuliano

Contributor at Hardwood and Hollywood
I'm a wanna-be NBA historian, the pride of Elba, New York and the greatest racket sport player you'll ever meet. I write about the NBA, NFL, WWE and other relevant pop culture topics as well. My parents taught me never to talk to strangers, but if you ever want to engage in a friendly sports debate, you can follow or harass me on Twitter @SonnyCG.

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