NBA Season Preview 2017-18: Top 50 Players, 23-13

23. Marc Gasol (29 on ESPN, 24 on SI, 28 on SB Nation) 

-Marc Gasol was up to his same old tricks last year as he helped lead the Memphis Grizzlies to the NBA Playoffs for the seventh straight season. At age 32 Gasol posted the best statistical season of his career thanks to the beautiful arsenal of sweeping hook shoots, running one-handers, the contested fall-away’s, the silky mid-range jumper, the masterful give-and-go partnership with Mike Conley and the surprising new addition of a reliable three-pointer. It’s not rare for seven-footers to venture behind the arc in today’s NBA … it is rare for a Center to hit 39 percent of his 268 three point attempts when he hadn’t attempted 20 three’s in a season prior.

Well that’s exactly what Gasol did, and it’s exactly what the Grizzlies needed from him. The expansion of Gasol’s range, and his willingness to expand his offensive influence was necessary for the Grizzlies to be able to move beyond the storied Grit and Grind days that are now officially in the past. The Grizzlies still won’t push the pace offensively; they’ll sit near the bottom of the league in pace so long as Gasol is manning the middle. But they have at least gotten more creative and more modern offensively.

Now whether that is a good thing for the future of the Gasol/Conley Grizzlies is up for debate. Memphis was 7th in the Western Conference last year and was bounced from the 1st Round for the second consecutive season. It’s no sure thing that they’ll even make the Playoffs this year in the loaded Western Conference, and there isn’t any clear path for the Grizzlies to improve themselves in a major way in the near future. So with that said, I suggest enjoying Marc Gasol while we still have the chance.

In the eyes of many basketball fans Marc Gasol may always be best known for being Pau’s formerly chubby younger brother who was viewed as a throw-in in one of the most important NBA trades ever. He’ll have two fewer titles than his older hermano and I’m not sure he’ll be looked at as one of the two most iconic figures of the Grit and Grind era. This will be unfair, as sports often are, but Gasol’s game should live on. Even as he heads into his tenth season, Gasol is still one of the best Center’s in the league. He’s a cagey passer and the fulcrum of the Grizzlies offense. He’s annually accepted more and more offensive responsibility, and with that added responsibility comes a few more neat tricks each year. Gasol added that reliable three-pointer early last year, and he parlayed that into a slow motion, moderately goofy off the dribble game he’s been able to utilize since overeager, out-of-their-comfort-zone big close out way too hard on the perimeter when Gasol’s loading up to bomb a three. It’s pretty remarkable that he added that in a single offseason, and it makes you wonder what he has up his sleeve heading into the 2017-18 season.

22. DeMarcus Cousins (17 on ESPN, 23 on SI, 21 on SB Nation) 

-I couldn’t in good conscience put Boogie Cousins ahead of the two Center’s that follow him on this list. Based on talent and numbers alone, this is a misstep on my part and I get that. I also understand that there are plenty of outside forces that may have played a part in preventing Cousins from reaching his potential. Yes, Cousins was saddled with an assortment of shitty teammates, Coaches and General Managers in Sacramento for years, and yes, things could end up being much better in his first full year in New Orleans. Or maybe he’ll poison the Pelicans already questionable chemistry just like he did in Sacramento for six years.

The on-court stuff for Cousins has always been fine; so long as you could stomach his mostly uninspired defense and the occasional technical foul for bitching at Officials, Boogie has been a fantastic, and at times downright dominant offensive force. He’s a 21-11 guy for his career, and last season was his best year yet … 27 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists per game, and like Gasol, Cousins worked a consistent three-pointer into his offensive repertoire Adding a 36% three-pointer makes Cousins a total nightmare to defend. Even though he’s slimmed down over the years, he’s impossible to move on the block, he works hard for position and straight up bullies defenders in the post, brushing off contact on basically every shot attempt in the paint.

Heading into year seven, we’re still wondering whether Cousins could exist and contribute on a team that makes the Playoffs. Though it’s extremely unlikely that he will never make the Playoffs, through six seasons Cousins is the most prolific offensive player ever to go 0 for 6 in his first six seasons. Of all of the players in league history who have averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in their first six NBA seasons, Cousins is the only one who didn’t play a single postseason game in those six years.

This isn’t entirely DeMarcus Cousins’ fault, but he’s not immune to blame either. No matter how much Boogie gives his team on a nightly basis, he always leaves you feeling like he should have been better; fewer dirty looks at teammates, less time spent screaming at referees, a couple more passes to open guys out of double teams, more consistent commitment to playing defense. That’s all we’re asking of him, and it isn’t that much. If Cousins made those adjustments to his game — or more specifically, his demeanor — he could be ten spots higher on this list when the 2018-19 season starts.

21. Nikola Jokic (16 on ESPN, 25 on SI, 23 on SB Nation) 

-The one player that I’m certain most casual fans reading along (i.e., family members that don’t watch the NBA regularly but still read what I write because I’m awfully lovable) wouldn’t be able recognize, be able to identify who he plays for, or properly pronounce his name (KNEE-coe-lah yo-kitch). We still haven’t had the full-fledged Jokic breakout moment yet — though you could argue the entire back half of last season did the job — but it’s coming. The Denver Nuggets have 15 nationally televised games this year and I would suggest tuning in to as many of those games as possible if you enjoy truly exquisite and unique Center play.

If you’re longing for the days of savant level Sabonis-esque passing and ultra-efficient scoring from a big man, Jokic is your guy. Once Jokic started getting starters minutes mid-December last season, the Nuggets built there entire offense around him and he didn’t disappoint. Over his final fifty games of the year Jokic averaged 19 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists per game for a Nuggets squad that went 28-22 and pushed toward a Playoff spot in the Western Conference. He shot 58 percent from the field on the season, and it’s not like he makes a living offensively the same way Andre Drummond does. 20 percent of Jokic’s field goal attempts were two-pointers from at least 10 feet out; Jokic hit an unheard of 54 percent of those shots. He was one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA, and he dished enough flashy assists that a six-and-a-half minute long video of only his passing highlights could be uploaded to YouTube.

The Denver Nuggets boasted the fourth best offensive rating in the league last year, trailing only the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers. Ask any casual fan who the Nuggets starting five was and they would probably stare blankly at you for a few seconds until they accepted that they couldn’t name one. Well, now hopefully they can name one … Nikola Jokic. Say it out loud. KNEE-coe-lah yo-kitch.

20. Rudy Gobert (14 on ESPN, 15 on SI, 17 on SB Nation) 

-On September 25th, 2000 during the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Team USA’s Vince Carter jumped high enough to very briefly set his testicles on top of the head of French National Team Center Frederic Weis. It was one of the most iconic moment in Summer Olympic basketball, the career of Vince Carter and tea-bagging. It was also the moment when the collective reputation of French big men was nearly irreversibly tarnished.

The narrative has changed since Rudy Gobert made his mark in the National Basketball Association. Now don’t be mistaken; Gobert is not unfamiliar with being posterized. DeMar DeRozan baptized Gobert two seasons ago. Andrew Wiggins introduced himself to Gobert not once, but twice in the same game a couple years back. Russell Westbrook very nearly did the basketball equivalent of stealing another man’s wife to Gobert last season. Even old man Vince Carter got in on the action, which may be proof that he may in fact hate French people.

Here’s the thing though … Gobert didn’t become a footnote like Weis did. If anything, these past posters may have fueled Gobert, who has become the one of the most intimidating interior presences in the league. He’s a lob-catching, shot-swatting, snarling French behemoth that sits alongside “the guillotine” as the only two entries on the list of intimidating French exports. He’s miles ahead of nearly every other Center in the league at protecting the rim, altering shots and having an overall positive defensive impact on his respective team, and that ultimately is what set Gobert apart from the three bigs behind him.

19. Mike Conley (23 on ESPN, 18 on SI, 29 on SB Nation)
18. Damian Lillard (18 on ESPN, 17 on SI, 15 on SB Nation)
17. Gordon Hayward (20 on ESPN, 16 on SI, 18 on SB Nation) 

-I have to save some words, because I’ve got a nice little surprise coming up for my annual Top 50 Countdown readers. But I will say this: For four weeks I spent hours each day researching the last year, tinkering with this list, moving guys up and down depending on what I watched and what I read. Conley, Lillard and Hayward never moved. I went back and checked my original list I made just for the hell of it in July (before I even knew I was going to do a countdown) and Conley, Lillard and Hayward were 19th, 18th and 17th respectively. Sometimes you just know where a guy stands in the league and you don’t waiver.

16. Klay Thompson (19 on ESPN, 20 on SI, 16 on SB Nation) 

-It’s pretty telling that when the upcoming player’s former team called up Golden State over the Summer, the Dubs didn’t even entertain a trading Klay Thompson for him. I agree with the decision not to do it (the fit wouldn’t have made sense), but the Warriors reportedly didn’t even think twice about declining.

15. Kyrie Irving (25 on ESPN, 21 on SI, 19 on SB Nation) 

-I’ve watched probably 90 percent of Kyrie Irving’s games over the last three seasons, so I’m qualified to tell Celtics fans exactly what you’re getting this year: A half-dozen incredible drive to the basket/ridiculous contested finishes off glass per game … the best tough-shot making and taking Point Guard in the league … limited ability (or maybe it’s willingness) in making teammates better … little effort or attention to detail defensively … the most dazzling over-dribbling sequences you’ll see on a night to night basis in the league … a legitimately clutch and appallingly ballsy late game scorer … a shoot-first Point Guard whose record was 64-117 before he started playing with LeBron James.

For the most part, everybody knows what Kyrie Irving brings to the table. I doubt I broke any news in that previous paragraph. But it’s still unclear what Kyrie’s win/loss record prior to LeBron’s re-arrival in Cleveland means. It’s entirely possible that Kyrie was just too young for the burden of carrying a team. It’s more than likely that he wasn’t helped by a terrible crop of teammates who also didn’t know how to win yet. Both of those statements are probably factual, but I would also argue that playing alongside LeBron James made life on the basketball court very easy for Kyrie Irving. They definitely didn’t mesh behind the scenes, and part of me understands Kyrie’s desire to have “his own” team. But a part of me doesn’t get it at all.

Last year I ranked the Top 50 NBA Players of the 21st Century, and Kyrie, with only a five year body of work, entered the list at #46. I sung his praises throughout; marveling at his otherworldly ball-handling and called his go-ahead three-pointer in the 2016 NBA Finals, “one of the most clutch plays in sports history, and definitely the biggest shot anyone under the age of 25 has ever made in a basketball game.” I also had this to say about Kyrie’s status in Cleveland:

“Even though he’s only 24 years old, it already feels like Kyrie Irving is living out his basketball destiny. Kyrie doesn’t have every tool necessary to be the best player on a championship team, but he’s got enough to climb this list at an accelerated rate so long as he’s a teammate of LeBron James. LeBron has had a way of masking some of the weaknesses of his best teammates. His effect on Kyrie is no different. But in Kyrie, LeBron has a teammate that can hide some of his weaknesses, or at the very least make life much easier for him than he’s been accustomed.” 

I stand by all of what I said last October. I think Kyrie was already in the best possible situation he could have been in, and maybe he got a little greedy. I suppose he’s entitled to do whatever he wants — although it bugs me that guys can request trades and not catch nearly as much shit as the guys who play out their contracts and decide to leave in Free Agency — and if he wanted to be in Boston (or San Antonio, or New York, or Minnesota or Miami, ya know, the franchises Kyrie actually preferred to be traded to) then good for him. I’m sure he’ll dazzle the Celtics fans with an array of incomprehensible dribble moves and drill a few late game jumpers. That’s a certainty. But is he the guy who will be mostly responsible for raising another banner in Boston? The jury is still out.

Jimmy Butler (11 on ESPN, 11 on SI, 10 on SB Nation)
Paul George (13 on ESPN, 12 on SI, 12 on SB Nation) 

Well folks, it’s about that time for Sonny’s Top 50 NBA Players Countdown staple … the Dr. Jack Breakdown! Two players, seven categories, and whoever gets the nod in the majority of those seven categories will edge their opponent for the 13th spot in the rankings, and finally give an answer to the question, “Who is better, Jimmy Butler or Paul George?” Let’s get to it!

Individual Accolades/Success – Remember the criteria: just because George is more accomplished over his career, it doesn’t mean he gets the edge over Butler. We’re looking at last years accolades only, and last year Butler made 3rd Team All-NBA and won two Playoff games. George missed out on an All-NBA selection and got swept out of the Playoffs by Cleveland. By a sliver …

Edge – Jimmy Butler

Offensive Skill Set – It seems like George is considered the superior offensive player, and I suspect this is because he was a #1 option on Pacers teams that were twice Conference finalists, and Butler never had that kind of success as the go to guy in Chicago. George too generally makes scoring look a little easier than Butler does. But I’m inclined to go the opposite direction of the majority here and give the nod to Butler. George is a marginally better shooter, and he’s a catch and shoot sniper. Butler is slightly more skilled as a passer (let’s not forget that passing is indeed part of a players offensive skill set), he crashes the offensive glass and I love his his willingness and understanding to spend some games attacking the basket repeatedly so he ends up with something like 16 free throw attempts.

The advanced stats favor Butler too. Per Basketball Reference, Butler’s offensive rating — team points scored per 100 possessions with a particular player on the floor — is through the roof. With Butler on the floor, the Bulls scored 123 points per 100 possessions last season. George’s offensive rating was a respectable 109. Butler was on par with or better than the only four Small Forwards ahead of this duo on this list; Kevin Durant (125 ORtg), Kawhi Leonard (121 ORtg), LeBron James (119 ORtg) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (116 ORtg).

Edge – Jimmy Butler

Defensive Prowess – Since George came back after nearly a full year on the shelf for the 2015-16 season he hasn’t been as consistently destructive on the perimeter as he was prior to shattering a bone in his leg. It’s understandable I suppose … I can’t imagine that I would be my normal self if a bone that exists inside my body snaps, punctures through my skin and is visible outside of my body. Still, George remains one of the ten best wing defenders in the league, and Jimmy Butler belongs to that group too.

Butler’s Defensive Rating was two points better than George’s last year, but that’s not enough to give Butler an edge. Neither player was able to show their peak defensive prowess last season night in and night out because so much of the offensive burden sat on their shoulders. They were their teams offense. That should change this year.

Butler will be playing alongside two under-23 #1 picks who have disappointed on the defensive end so far. Tom Thibodeau is a grumpy defensive mastermind, and my guess is he’ll use Butler as a proxy of sorts; an on-court example for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns to observe and learn from. Butler will still close a decent number of tight games, but Towns should lead the Wolves in shots and get the lion’s share of Minnesota’s late-game scoring reps too.

George’s situation isn’t much different. He’s not a proxy or anything like that, but in big games his defense will be more valuable than his offense. Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony may end up getting more touches, but George could prove to be the most valuable member of the Thunder. The addition of two go-to scorers at his side will allow George to wreak havoc defensively on the perimeter with All-NBA defender Andre Roberson while picking his spots offensively.

Ultimately, I couldn’t choose between the two. It’s a bitch to score against either of them and I think they’ll both regain their All-Defensive Team form this year.

Edge – Draw

Trade Haul – The Pacers landed Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George, which isn’t terrible compensation considering George only has one year left on his contract and the league-wide assumption is that he’s LA-bound. Butler — and the 15th pick in the 2017 NBA draft — fetched Zach LaVine (recovering from a torn ACL), Kris Dunn (who didn’t once look like a starting NBA Point Guard last season) and the 7th pick (Lauri Markkanen … sigh), a curiously poor haul for a 3rd Team All-NBA performer who still has two years left before he’s a free agent and had never publicly (or as far as we know, privately) asked to be traded.

Edge – Paul George

Watchability – Paul George has a little bit of Tracy McGrady in him, and for the moment, that isn’t meant as a compliment. George, like McGrady, always appears as if he’s just gliding on the court, coasting through large portions of the game, never totally in fifth gear. Jimmy Butler meanwhile looks like an Army tank of a human being playing Small Forward, barreling into and over dudes on his way to the basket all night long as his jersey becomes increasingly untucked throughout the game. I love it so much.

Edge – Jimmy Butler

Nickname – We’ve got PG-13 vs. Jimmy G. Buckets in a nickname battle for the ages. Jimmy G. Buckets reminds me of the David S. Pumpkins skit on SNL, though we know the ‘G’ in “Jimmy G. Buckets” stands for ‘Gets’ and we still have no clue what the ‘S’ stands for. I personally prefer not knowing, and I wish it wasn’t public knowledge that the ‘G’ stands for ‘Gets.’

I’m normally not a fan of the nicknames that involve any combination of numbers, initials or the first initial/first part of the last name, but PG-13 works in a that CP3, CB4, C-Webb, KG, T-Mac, J-Kidd and many others don’t because PG-13 is actually a thing. It’s genuinely creative, not at all lazy, and it required George to change his number so he could not only upgrade his nickname, but also suggest that parental guidance is suggested in the case of children under the age of 13.

Edge – Paul George

As a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, who was I more interested in the Cavs trading for after the season ended? 

-The simple answer: Jimmy Butler, and that has nothing to do with the one year difference in the length of their contracts or what I thought Cleveland would have to give up to get either of them. In my gut, I just felt like Butler would be a better option; someone I trusted a little bit more to go to war in series against Golden State, someone more likely to pick up the slack on the six nights a year when LeBron decides to coast through a game, someone who might care a little more about winning than playing in a bigger market, someone who is just a slightly better basketball player.

Edge – Jimmy Butler

Overall Edge – Jimmy Butler (4-2-1)


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