NBA Season Preview 2017-18: Top 50 Players, 35-24

35. Isaiah Thomas (33 on ESPN, 40 on SI, 20 on SB Nation) 

-If this ranking were based solely on a 2016-17 body of work, Isaiah would be a Top 20 player in the NBA without any doubt. We can poke holes in his defense (or lack there of) and make note of how his ceiling is limited because he’s only 5’9″ and rapidly approaching 30 years old, but there’s no disputing the fact that IT had one of the most prolific offensive seasons ever recorded by a Point Guard and that’s good enough to make up for crappy defense, a questionable future and an eventual max deal that very few teams are going to want to put on the table.

There was no recent historical precedent for Isaiah’s 2016-17 campaign, just like there isn’t one for a shoot-first under-6’0″ Point Guard coming back better than before after suffering a serious hip injury. If Isaiah can come back healthy at any point this upcoming season he’ll find a niche as a Cavalier, even if it’s one that more closely resembles what he did before he vaulted toward stardom in Boston. Though Isaiah has since proven to be overqualified as a sixth man, he could thrive as a 3rd scoring option in Cleveland, deferring to LeBron James and Kevin Love.

The Celtics made the right decision in parting ways with Thomas before next summer when they would have to decide whether to pay him max money or submit a lowball offer and risk losing him, especially when the haul in return was Kyrie Irving. But understandably, this trade wasn’t one that was easy for all Celtics fans to swallow. Giving up next year’s Brooklyn pick hurts, but Thomas was arguably the most popular Celtic since Larry Bird (for good reason) and that’s what made this unexpected trade a gut punch for some fans who were more emotionally invested. The Celtics overachieved last year largely because Isaiah Thomas has built a career on overachieving.

34. Hassan Whiteside (41 on ESPN, 34 on SI, 38 on SB Nation)

-It’s time for your semi-annual reminder that I predicted that Hassan Whiteside would be a All-Star caliber pro basketball player way back in 2010.

Courtesy of Sonny Giuliano/June 2010

Courtesy of Sonny Giuliano/June 2010

33. Kemba Walker (34 on ESPN, 29 on SI, 32 on SB Nation)

-Kemba’s fast, bouncy handle and stepback jumper have been heralded ever since he reduced Pittsburgh’s Gary McGhee to a pile of human jell-o at Madison Square Garden in 2011, and he became a college basketball folk hero after leading Connecticut to Big East and National Title’s in less than a month, but even then when his stock was at an all-time high, there were concerns about his ceiling as a pro. He didn’t project to be a quality defender at the next level (and he’s still not very good) and it was problematic that he wasn’t a great shooter.

It was only three years ago when Kemba Walker spent most games throwing up so many bricks that he could have worked part-time as a stonemason if he desired to. It certainly didn’t look like he’d eventually transform into one of the ten best Point Guards in the league. But credit to Kemba, he willed himself into becoming a 40% three-point shooter and all-around efficient scorer, and I currently have him ranked as the 10th best Point Guard in the NBA.

Only five players in the league hit more three-pointer’s than Kemba’s 240 trey’s last year, and of those five players, the Splash Brothers are the only two that shot a higher percentage. That’s a drastic uptick from the 2014-15 season when Kemba barely hit 30% of his 280 three-point attempts. This isn’t the only area on the floor where Kemba has improved; despite being one of the smaller starting Point Guard’s in the league, Kemba’s only a touch worse than the elite PG’s finishing at the rim, and he’s right on par with those guys at finishing in the in-between 3-10 foot range where smaller guards typically have a tough time scoring efficiently unless they’re Chris Paul or peak Tony Parker.

The one aspect from Kemba’s college arsenal that has carried over to the NBA is his ability to score in crunchtime. Per, Walker was a more efficient scorer in “clutch” situations (under five minutes left in the game, leading or trailing by no more than five points), than peers like John Wall, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and any other Point Guard you’d assume was markedly more successful.

32. DeAndre Jordan (30 on ESPN, 28 on SI, 26 on SB Nation) 

-Nobody should be more bummed out about Chris Paul’s abrupt power play exit from Los Angeles than DeAndre Jordan. Jordan has spent the last six years feasting on Chris Paul lobs, leading the league in field goal percentage each of the last five seasons. He never shoots outside of the paint and he rarely even gets the chance to post-up. If he’s not barreling down the lane getting ready to pulverize the rim and anyone who is in his path to the rim, he’s a total non-factor offensively. Over the last two seasons, Jordan has bumped his free throw percentage up considerably to 48%. That’s not a misprint.

DeAndre still has plenty of value, even without Paul. He’s great at what he does do offensively and he will likely still catch plenty of lobs this year from Blake Griffin and newly acquired passing savant Milos Teodosic. He remains the most important Clipper on the defensive end; agile, heady, rim-protecting bigs who consistently play hard don’t grow on trees. DJ is one of them and he has real value.

31. Bradley Beal (28 on ESPN, 32 on SI, 30 on SB Nation)
30. C.J. McCollum (31 on ESPN, 39 on SI, 31 on SB Nation) 

-About as close in my mind as two players could get. Even before I put this list together, I assumed I would have Beal and McCollum featured consecutively on the list, in some order, because numerous times over the past two years I’ve actually thought about what team would get the better of a Beal/McCollum swap, the Blazers or the Wizards. I typically spend about 15 minutes going back and forth between the two choices before deciding that it’s too close to call. Then maybe a month later I have the same internal debate and it goes the same way.

Today I’ve decided to give McCollum the tiniest edge over Beal, and it’s actually disproportionate that Beal and McCollum are separated by one whole spot on the list; it feels more appropriate to rank McCollum 30th, and say that Beal’s actual ranking is 30.27. Actually, this is my column, so nobody is stopping me from doing that.

30.27. Bradley Beal
30. C.J. McCollum 

-ESPN, Sports Illustrated and SB Nation all gave the slight edge to Beal in their rankings, but I prefer the work of McCollum just a smidgen more. Obviously, it’s tough, and the margin between the two is nearly non-existent. They’re different kinds of Shooting Guards, but both play the second-fiddle role incredibly well, and statistically, across the board, their numbers are practically identical.

Image Courtesy of Basketball-Reference

Image Courtesy of Basketball-Reference

See what I mean? Evaluating the statistical resumes of Beal and McCollum reminded me of that Spider-Man Looking At Spider-Man meme. Picking between the two mostly comes down to personal preference, and that’s why I chose McCollum. Beal is a better defender and his jumper is a shooting purists wet dream. He continues to show improvement as a facilitator and he finally stayed healthy for an entire season last year.

McCollum probably has a slightly higher offensive ceiling, and he’s a better all-around offensive player today. Beal has the luxury of playing alongside one of the best passing guards in the league, and while Damian Lillard isn’t a slouch, he doesn’t exactly set McCollum up with looks the way John Wall does for Beal. McCollum is nearly an offense all by himself, albeit a quirky one. He’s a genius in the subtleties of offensive basketball … his changing of pace while he’s moving off the ball, the unorthodox shooting angles, the various head fakes and hesitation moves, the complete mastery of the off-the-dribble mid-range jumper. It’s all there, and it’s all glorious.

29. DeMar DeRozan (39 on ESPN, 36 on SI, 25 on SB Nation)
28. Kyle Lowry (21 on ESPN, 19 on SI, 24 on SB Nation)  

-The DeMar DeRozan/Kyle Lowry partnership is the exact opposite of a box of chocolates; basketball fans know exactly what they’re going to get. Everything that can be said about Lowry and DeRozan has already been said, and everything we’ll ever need to know about them is already public knowledge. They’re a perfectly good enough duo to lead a team to maybe 50 wins before falling apart in Round 2 of the Playoffs because while we squabble over which of the two is actually Toronto’s alpha dog, neither of the two are actually capable of leading a team to the NBA Finals. Next!

27. Paul Millsap (27 on ESPN, 27 on SI, 27 on SB Nation) 

-What can I say … 27th just felt right for Millsap.

26. Kristaps Porzingis (22 on ESPN, 33 on SI, 34 on SB Nation)

-The New York Knicks will stink this year, and their fans know this, but the last time the Knickerbockers handed the franchise keys to a youngster with so much upside, it was when Patrick Ewing entered the NBA in 1985. Despite a crappy roster, horrendous ownership and a possible feud between their head coach and star player, there is indeed reason for Knicks fans to be enthused … their team belongs to Kristaps Porzingis, the true Unicorn of the NBA.

Porzingis is unique compared to everyone else who has ever stepped on an NBA floor. This is an overwhelming understatement, I know. There have only been 24 players in the history of the floor who have been 7’3″ or taller. In total, there have only been four Latvian born pro’s. No Latvian or towering behemoth has ever had the absurd offensive skill level of Porzingis. In fact, there are very few big men ever who could shoot from distance, drill trailing three’s, create shots for himself off the dribble or pull down a defensive rebound and lead a fast break like Porzingis can. He has a skill set that is completely independent.

The Zinger isn’t your stereotypical “soft” Euro big. He looks the part, — long, lanky, baby faced — but he plays with some nastiness and a noticeable swagger that is awfully endearing. Porzingis isn’t afraid of banging with opposing bigs in the paint, trying to put dudes on posters, or put himself at risk of getting put on a poster. That’s very nontraditionally Euro, but everything about Porzingis is nontraditional.

25. Blake Griffin (24 on ESPN, 22 on SI, 22 on SB Nation) 

-Ever since Griffin made a highlight-filled debut in the autumn of 2010 he’s been one of the most polarizing and misunderstood players in the league. I personally have always felt like the public’s perception of him has always been slightly off at every stage of his career. Before he ever punched an equipment manager or dated a Keeping Up With The Kardashian’s cast member, I felt like he caught too much shit from fans. After his breakout Rookie season I felt like he was just a tiny bit overrated. While he was peaking from 2013 through 2015, it seemed like most fans weren’t appreciating his all-around greatness enough. As he enters his eighth year in the NBA, it finally feels like fans and analysts alike have reached some sort of consensus about Blake Griffin; either that or everyone just stopped caring so much about him. Regardless, I’m more confused than ever. I have no idea if Griffin is overrated, underrated or properly rated, but everybody (excluding me) seems to be on the same page for once, and I suppose that’s a good thing.

It took seven years, but Griffin finally shed the “just a dunker” label his detractors tagged him with in 2010 when he was putting some poor fool on a poster every single night. Now here’s the interesting thing about this collective revelation: there are two reasons why most fans stopped feeling this way about him. First, there have been enough well-written and fact-based pieces that were published on marquee websites and written by respected basketball minds that have disproved this notion. That, and there’s the always crucially underrated eye-test, which Griffin has been passing for years.

Griffin came into the league way ahead of the curve in terms of his ball-handling and play-making skills, and he’s honed his craft even more over these last seven seasons. He’s one of five players in league who were at least 6’10” and averaged at least 3 assists per game in each of their first seven seasons in the league. Griffin is so clearly the best facilitator on the Clippers roster that Doc Rivers has even considered the idea of letting him play some Point Guard (or Power Guard, or Point Forward, or whatever the hell made up position name we want to assign it). I wouldn’t get too excited about seeing Blake cast in a drastically different role than we’ve seen him in the past … we’re talking about a coach who hasn’t even been creative enough to stagger his stars minutes.

Second, and we’re once again relying on the eye-test here, but based on last year, Blake Griffin isn’t physically capable of performing at a high level as “just a dunker.” It’s deceiving because he still looks the same appearance-wise, but he’s a different player now. Even if you put aside the increased number of mid-range jumpers and long two’s (which, to his credit, Griffin hit at the same rate as Dirk Nowitzki last year), he runs differently, jumps differently, moves differently. It’s kinda like when an older dog has a surgery, and when he comes home he still looks like the same dog but he isn’t as playful, he runs a little slower and sleeps a little more.

Truthfully, I’ve never owned a dog, so I have no clue if this is an accurate comparison. But I do know that I’m very intrigued by Blake Griffin heading into this season. For the first time in his career I’m not sure what to expect. Maybe Doc will investigate what it’s like to live outside of the box and entrust Blake to run the show all season long, or maybe he won’t even be able to give the Clippers 50 healthy games. We’ll see.

24. Kevin Love (26 on ESPN, 26 on SI, 37 on SB Nation)

-Perhaps I’m a sucker for actually buying what Ty Lue is selling, but I’ve arrived with my bags backed and ticket in hand, and I’m ready to hop on the “Kevin Love is about to have his best year as a Cleveland Cavalier” bandwagon. Do we have assigned seats or is this like Southwest Airlines? Can I just plop down wherever I want? Is there WiFi on board?

The lack of appreciation for Kevin Love, or the misremembering of how prolific he was as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves is genuinely surprising to me. Sure, he’s spent the last three years as a scapegoat, a punchline, the frequent odd-man-out and an underutilized spot-up shooter, but even amidst all of that turmoil, he still showed flashes of being the same Kevin Love that was putting up bonkers numbers and carrying crappy Timberwolves teams to relevancy.

Even though Love was relegated to third option over the previous three seasons, he’s still shined bright on a semi-consistent basis. Last year Love averaged 19 points, 11 rebounds and hit 145 three-pointers. The only other time that those marks have been hit in a single season in NBA history was when Love did it in his final year with the Wolves. He’s the lone member of the 19-11-145 Club, and he’ll be a three-timer after the 2017-18 season.

It goes without saying, but the Cavaliers would be smart to make Love a priority throughout the regular season. LeBron James is entering his 15th season, as is past-his-prime Dwyane Wade, and Isaiah Thomas will be shelved for a large chunk of the regular season. Love should be force fed in all different spots, and we know that the Cavs can get him looks in a variety of creative ways. The evidence:

Now obviously on this particular night Kevin Love was absurdly hot and there was a pronounced emphasis to get Love open looks, but think about all of the different ways Love got a bucket in the quarter. He hit three’s in every spot contestants would shoot from in a Three-Point Contest on All-Star Saturday Night. Three were designed plays to get Love an open look behind the arc (including one dribble hand-off from LeBron to Love that I’d be willing to bet we’ll see once a game this season, especially if opposing Center’s are trying to chase Love around), two were pick and pops that left Love wide open because the primary ball-handlers were LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, and one was a breakdown defensively where Love was wide open in the right corner. He also got a bucket after grabbing an offensive rebound, plus two designed post-up scores. On the night he was 8 for 8 from the free throw line.

You shouldn’t expect any 34 point quarters from Love this year, but don’t be shocked if he’s once again scoring twenty-plus points per game. He’s too talented, and this year, too needed not to.

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