NBA Season Preview 2017-18: Top 50 Players, 12-6

12. John Wall (15 on ESPN, 13 on SI, 11 on SB Nation) 

-The best Point Guard in the Eastern Conference, and yes, this was my position even before Kyrie Irving spit in the face of Clevelanders and my beloved Cavaliers worse than LeBron James ever did. Wall can’t put the ball in the basket like Irving — few guys can — but he does just about everything else that a Point Guard should do better than Irving, and all but handful of the most elite Point Guards in the league.

Three years ago I wrote how the biggest knock on Wall’s game — other than his shaky jumper, which is significantly less shaky now than it was then — was that he often played too fast for his own good. He was always in too much of a hurry, a little too out of control. One of his greatest strengths was manifesting itself as a weakness. Well, this isn’t the case anymore. Wall has better control and understanding of his gears now, and his breakneck speed is still a facet of his game that opposing defenses have a hard time handling. Wall is a lightning bolt in transition, jetting from one end of the floor to the other just as fast as any ball-handler in the league, forcing defenses to sprint back to the paint to try to slow his momentum, which that leaves shooters wide open on the perimeter. The same can be said when Wall gets a full head of steam moving towards the basket after a high screen frees him from his defender; in situations like that, the entire defense is forced to shift and Wall is an expert at hitting sharpshooters in the corners with cross-court dimes.

There was a time when it appeared Wall was on track to become one of the new school shoot-first Point Guards, but over time he’s become one of the league’s most balanced lead guards. Wall has been Top Three in assists per game each of the last four years (in that four year span, Wall is the only player in the league who has been Top Three all four seasons) and last season he made a much-needed leap as a scorer. It’s been gradual, but last year was the first time where you could really see that Wall was shooting jumpers with total confidence in his ability. He’s not a marksman by any means, but having that confidence is over half the battle.

The Washington Wizards aspire to sit atop the Eastern Conference. They believe that they already have the roster to jump ahead of the Boston Celtics and unseat LeBron James as the king of the East. I’m skeptical that they do, but if John Wall has another level that he ascend to then maybe the discussion is worth having. He’s on another planet athletically and his continued development into a more cerebral, calculated Point Guard has been fun to watch, especially since he still makes three plays every game that are almost beyond comprehension.

11. Karl-Anthony Towns (12 on ESPN, 14 on SI, 9 on SB Nation)

-Last year I pegged Karl-Anthony Towns as my pre-season MVP. I thought there was an avenue where it could happen. I thought Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant would steal votes from each other. I thought voters would still be suffering from LeBron James fatigue. I didn’t know if Russell Westbrook or James Harden would win enough games, and I didn’t think Kawhi Leonard would make as big of a leap offensively as he did. Meanwhile, I thought the Wolves would make the Playoffs and I thought Tim Thibodeau would help Towns defensively. Neither of those two things happened.

I stand by the pick, and not only do I stand by it, but I was very tempted to run it back and pick Towns as my MVP pick this year too. This year I know Towns will be better defensively — I guess I don’t actually know this, but it’s hard to imagine that he will be any worse — and he should be just as prolific offensively. And when I say “prolific”, that’s not at all an overstatement. The best way to describe what Towns did last season offensively is prolific. Let’s go on brief journey, shall we?

In the 71 year history of the National Basketball Association, only 21 players in league history have ever averaged at least 25 points and 12 rebounds per game throughout the course of an NBA season. If we wanted to narrow down this group, we could make it a requirement that they shot at least 50 percent from the field in that given season as well. That brings the list down to 12 players. If we bumped it up from 50 percent to 54 percent, the list drops to seven players. From there, let’s ensure that these weren’t empty stats and let’s see if they did something like this early in their career: we’ll make it necessary that their PER had to be at least 25, and they had to be 25 years old or younger. We’re now down to five players: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, David Robinson and Karl-Anthony Towns. That’s a group that includes 4 of the Top 40 basketball players ever, and a 21 year old second-year star that is a once-in-a-generation type of offensive talent.

To me it feels like Towns might be on track for a Karl Malone kind of career where he averages somewhere between 24 and 28 points and 10 and 12 rebounds per game for over a decade and ends his career with 30,000 points and 12,000 rebounds. It’s in play. And keep in mind, Malone won two MVP’s … Maybe I’m again early thinking that it could be this season for Towns, but he will get his eventually. He’s too good not too.

10. Draymond Green (10 on ESPN, 10 on SI, 14 on SB Nation) 

You know what, let’s shelf this for 24 hours.

9. Chris Paul (7 on ESPN, 7 on SI, 13 on SB Nation) 

-And while we’re at it, let’s shelf this for 2,000 more words.

7 and 8. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo (9 on ESPN, 9 on SI, 8 on SB Nation)
Anthony Davis (6 on ESPN, 8 on SI, 7 on SB Nation)

-Well would ya look at that! It turns out lightning does occasionally strike twice in the same place! It’s time for the second (and final) Dr. Jack Breakdown of the 2017 Top 50 NBA Players Countdown. Nine categories, two players, one winner of the 7th spot on the Top 50 list. Let’s do it!

Offensive Skill Set – Giannis has one of the more unique all-around offensive repertoires in the league, especially from a visual standpoint. Giannis has long limbs, massive hands and he’s so damn fluid navigating through the nine other players on the floor. It’s altogether different than the way LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard move. It’s more graceful, but also more staggering when he’s long-striding his way from one end of the floor to the other end on a fast break. Giannis is more than just a rare athletic presence though; he’s already a physical, smooth and tremendously efficient post-up player and he sees the floor like a cagey veteran Point Guard that is living inside a 6’11” frame.

The jumper, or lack thereof, is still a problem. Smart defenses will dare Giannis to beat them from the outside, and until he can fire with confidence and connect with some consistency he’s occasionally limited offensively. Anthony Davis, for now, is a more complete and more reliable offensive weapon. He’s devastating as one half of any Pick and Roll partnership, just as equipped to roll down the lane and catch lobs at the rim as he is popping and shooting mid-range jumpers in stride. Davis is a capable scorer anywhere inside the arc, and sooner or later he’ll bump his three-point shooting percentage north of 35 percent … it’s the way the league is trending, and his jumper is technically sound. It’s just a matter of taking two steps back and getting that extra point.

Edge – Anthony Davis

Defensive Prowess – Both Giannis and Davis made 2nd Team All-Defense last year and there were countless nights when they each looked like the best defensive basketball player alive. Davis has finished in the top four in blocks per game each of the last four seasons. He works hard and he’s tidier with his rotations than he was during his first couple of seasons. He’s not the leader in the clubhouse yet, but Davis has every tool necessary to someday hold the title as the best defensive big man in the NBA.

Giannis is capable of defending more positions than Davis is, and he’s just as devastating as The Brow as a weak-side shot blocker. Giannis bounds into the paint from out of picture and swats shots at the rim like few guys ever have. He’s an opportunistic stalker of the passing lanes and he hounds under-qualified ball-handlers similar to the way Kawhi Leonard does.

I don’t necessarily feel great about this pick, but I give Giannis the advantage over Davis heading into the season just because it feels like almost anything is possible for Giannis. If he averaged two blocks and two-and-half steals per game won Defensive Player of the Year this season I wouldn’t be remotely surprised. If Davis makes a drastic leap from last year to this year as a defender I’d be more inclined to say that it was unexpected.

Slight Edge – Giannis Antetokounmpo

Durability – I am genuinely concerned every time either one of these dudes leave their feet in a crowd of bodies just because they’re so long and exposed to horrific injuries, and it would break my heart if something happened to either one of them. I’ll be knocking on wood as I’m typing this to try to avoid any jinxes, but thus far, Giannis has a relatively clean bill of health while Davis has been perennially nicked up. Davis had missed at least ten games in four of his first five NBA seasons. Giannis has missed only ten games in his four year career, but this is an unfair fight since The Greek Freak might actually be a species more advanced than humans. We haven’t determined that yet.

Edge – Giannis Antetokounmpo

Nightly “What the Fuck did he just do?” Potential – With all due respect to Anthony Davis, who does a great deal of remarkable and outlandish shit on a nightly basis, there isn’t a player with a wider range of potential kinds of “Holy Shit” plays per game than Giannis. The chase down blocks, the jumped passing lanes that lead to free throw line dunks, the Point Guard court vision, the gigantic bounding Euro-steps. It’s all there.

Edge – Giannis Antetokounmpo

Most Ridiculous Measurable – When I was a Freshman in High School, I was wearing size 14 sneakers and I was 5’11”. My Doctor at the time told me it was possible — not necessarily likely, but definitely possible — that I could grow maybe six more inches by the time I graduated High School based on the size of my feet. This excited me, because as someone who loved playing basketball, I knew that growing to be 6’5″ definitely wouldn’t be a bad thing. Unfortunately, my feet stopped growing and my height only increased by an inch and a half since then. I wasn’t lucky enough to get the Freak Growing Gene that Davis and Giannis have.

Davis was 6’1″ when he entered his sophomore year of high school as an unheralded Guard, and over the next 24 months he grew nine inches and became the best high school basketball player in the country. Now while this is an impressive growth spurt, countless NBA players go through something similar to this during puberty. You know what countless NBA players don’t have? Hands the size of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s. Giannis hand from tip of the pinkie to the tip of the thumb are twelve inches. That’s three more inches than Anthony Davis grew in two years. That’s five more inches than the average man’s hand size. That’s almost a full inch longer than Kawhi Leonard’s hands.

Edge – Giannis Antetokounmpo

Greatest ‘What If’ – My single favorite category of the Breakdown, though it’s probably the least important. But boy, these two ‘What If”s’ are absolute doozies. It’s easy to wonder ‘What if fourteen teams hadn’t passed on Giannis Antetokounmpo?’ The following players were taken ahead of Giannis during the 2013 NBA Draft: One fringe All-Star (C.J. McCollum), three guys who could start on the majority of the teams in the NBA (Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter and Steven Adams), six rotation players (Cody Zeller, Alex Len, Nerlens Noel, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kelly Olynyk and Shabazz Muhammad), and four guys who either aren’t or shouldn’t be on an NBA roster (Anthony Bennett, Ben McLemore, Trey Burke and Michael Carter-Williams). Now sure, I get that teams had no clue Giannis could be this dominant. I mean, these were the kind of videos that were circulating the internet prior to the 2013 Draft:

In 2013 you could’ve showed me this tape, told me this was a JUCO Freshman from Western New York and I would’ve been inclined to believe that Niagara University was going to get a pretty solid frontcourt player in two years. You couldn’t grab anything from that video as evidence that four years later Giannis would be hitting game-winners at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

So that raises the question: What team should have taken a flier on Giannis? Knowing what we know now, the answer is obviously “All of Them,” but assuming all we had to go on was that grainy highlight tape, Giannis would have never went 1st overall. But you know who had the 11th pick, and turned out to be perfectly fine with taking guys in the draft with high upside guys but might not produce right away because they were either A) Injured, or B) Needed time to develop … That’s right, our favorite group of blatant tankers, the Philadelphia 76ers, who began Trusting The Process on this very night when they traded Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel (the 6th pick) and selected Michael Carter-Williams with the 11th pick.

Now sure, “The Process” would be an entirely different experience had the Sixers pulled the trigger on the lanky Greek mystery man with the 11th pick, but damn it’s fun to think about it all starting with Giannis in 2013. And it’s entirely realistic to believe that the Sixers would have been bad enough the following season to still get the 3rd pick, which turned into Joel Embiid, and suddenly if that happens the Sixers are employing two players with retractable roofs in place of ceilings. I trust that Process.

Anthony Davis’ ‘What If’ takes a little bit of familiarity with recent NBA history. In the four NBA Drafts that took place between LeBron’s departure from Cleveland in July 2010 and his return in July 2014, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Draft Lottery three out of four times. That is a remarkable stroke of luck (and bad basketball) that will likely never be duplicated because of the upcoming NBA Draft Lottery reform.

Anyway, the Cavs won the lottery in 2011 (Kyrie Irving), 2013 (Anthony Bennett) and 2014 (Andrew Wiggins), but drafted 4th in the 2012 Draft despite the 3rd best odds to pick 1st for the second consecutive year. The Cavs settled for Dion Waiters with the 4th pick, but the biggest prize was #1 overall pick, Anthony Davis. So here’s the ‘What If’ … What if the Cavs had hit the lottery in 2012 yet again and drafted Anthony Davis? Davis and Kyrie probably don’t make any big time noise in the Eastern Conference their first couple years together, but in 2014 we know LeBron had the itch to come home, and if he were coming home to Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis as teammates, maybe the Cavs have more than one NBA Title right now.

Edge – Anthony Davis

Future Outlook – I had a very detailed, elaborate dream one night over the Summer, and I promise I’m not making any part of this story up. It’s completely true. I was at my girlfriends house, sleeping, and in my slumber I had a dream that I went to a well-respected Fortune Telling service, but what made this particular fortune teller unique is that they couldn’t see into the future of whoever paid for their services … they could only see into the somewhat distant future of all four professional sports. They couldn’t give you any exacts (for example, I wouldn’t be able to ask, “Who is going to win the 2023 NBA Championship?” because there is a financial incentive for me to know that … I know this, because it was explained to me in my dream), but they could answer questions — with a tremendous success rate — that don’t apply to direct results.

So anyway, in my dream I walked into a building that resembled a tanning salon, approached a desk in the lobby, paid for my visit and sat down in the waiting area until one of their fortune tellers called my name. I followed him back into a dimly lit room that looked exactly like every fortune telling establishment. We sat down across from each other and an actual crystal ball was on the table that sat between us. Within the dream, I found it reassuring that he had a crystal ball to look into. I was even more assured when he told me that the results of the reading were 95 percent accurate. He asked me if I was ready, I said yes. He flipped a switch on the crystal ball. It turned on. I asked, and I’m paraphrasing, “Ten years from now, will NBA fans be more or less convinced that LeBron James is actually the best basketball player ever?” He stared into the crystal ball for a moment, then responded, and I’m again paraphrasing:

“The way fans regard LeBron today is basically how he’ll be regarded ten years from now. However, in ten years, over half of NBA fans and analysts will firmly believe that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the greatest basketball player ever.”

After he replied I stood up, shook his hand, thanked him and walked out of the building. A bit later I woke up, ran through the details of the dream again in my head, and thought to myself, “Well, I guess if any young player is going to take that title eventually, I guess it makes sense that it would be Giannis.”

Edge – Giannis Antetokounmpo

Overall Edge – Giannis Antetokounmpo (5-2)

9. Chris Paul (7 on ESPN, 7 on SI, 13 on SB Nation)
6. James Harden (8 on ESPN, 5 on SI, 5 on SB Nation) 

-There haven’t been too many times in the past where I haven’t been able to immediately get a handle on how I thought a commonly considered “elite” team would perform in an upcoming NBA season. That’s not to say I’m always correct or anything of the sort, but very rarely do I struggle to comprehend how exactly I feel about a particular team. To some degree, the Houston Rockets occupied that role for the majority of the NBA off-season.

Annually there are cases where I’m not sure if a team is going to be good or bad. For example: I think there is a pretty large distance between the ceiling and floor for the Philadelphia 76ers this year. However, that is mostly dependent on the health of their best players (which is always a large factor in determining the overall amount of success a team has, especially if there are built-in injury concerns) and the development of young players (which applies directly to the Sixers, as do the health question marks). There are a handful of teams like this every season: teams that are bound to make a leap sometime soon, only we don’t know if this leap is weeks away or a full season away. I would add the Minnesota Timberwolves, Milwaukee Bucks and maybe even the Denver Nuggets to the list of teams who are primed to make a major leap sometime in the next two seasons.

The Houston Rockets aren’t on that list because we already know what they are. We know they’ll be one of the elite teams in the NBA … last season was proof of that. The Rockets turned the volume up on D’Antoni Ball last year, resembling something like the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns on the basketball equivalent of steroids (more three’s, free throws and shots in the paint) and held their own in the nightly arms race against the Golden State Warriors to claim the title as the best offensive team in the league. The Warriors, with an overwhelmingly large gap in talent, edged the Rockets out, but the fact that it was a competition says a lot about Mike D’Antoni, whose reputation took some hits after rocky tenures in New York and Los Angeles, and James Harden, who is heading towards “Most underappreciated star of his generation” territory.

Harden’s game isn’t always a pleasure to watch, but damn can The Beard ball. Harden didn’t win MVP, and he didn’t get my vote, but it’s awfully easy to make a case that he should’ve have won. Ever since Harden joined the Rockets he’s played with the ball in his hand, and he didn’t ever share the floor with a traditional, old-school, set-em-up Point Guard in Houston. But his transition from being a ball-dominant shooting guard to an honest-to-God Point Guard who was orchestrating a high-speed, profoundly efficient, all-time great offense can’t be talked about enough. It was one of the best offensive seasons ever. 

Now it would’ve been easy for Houston to run it back for the 2017-18 season without making any major changes to the top of their roster, just like D’Antoni’s Suns teams did a decade ago. But this is a new NBA world we’re living in, and one Superstar player isn’t going to take you to the promised land. The Rockets pulled off a complex deal to acquire the Point God, Chris Paul, from the Los Angeles Clippers. And ever since that deal went down on June 28th, I’ve been thinking to myself, “Well how the hell does this work?” That has been going through the mind of just about any obsessed basketball fan out there for the last few months, but in the end it seemed like everybody reached the same sort of unclear conclusion:

Well, it’s going to take Chris Paul and James Harden some time to develop chemistry, but if you’re the Rockets it’s a trade you have to make. 

Nothing about that statement is blatantly untrue. In all likelihood, it will take Harden and Paul time to figure out the best way to maximize their on-court partnership, and yes, this was a trade that the Rockets were smart to make. But what I wonder is, what if this is a more seamless fit than we all realize? What if playing with two elite Point Guards at or near their respective peaks is the way all Super Teams of the future should be built? What if Chris Paul, James Harden, Mike D’Antoni and a stable of shooters are about to shatter numerous offensive records and push the Golden State Warriors like no other team could simply because they will be able to score the basketball like no other team could?

Isn’t this all in play? Couldn’t this turn out to be a nearly perfect partnership? Paul and Harden will have the opportunity to carry less responsibility offensively on a nightly basis, which means each of the two will be less fatigued when the Playoffs start. In those rare times when either has played off the ball, both have proven to be effective spot up shooters and timely cutters. And as Mike D’Antoni smartly pointed out, there will never be a time when the Rockets will be playing without a Hall of Fame Point Guard on the floor; he could stagger their minutes in a way where the Rockets don’t even need a traditional back-up Point Guard. Don’t we know by now that this is really important?

I’m fascinated by Houston and I can’t wait to see what they are, because I’m still not sure what to expect. Their floor isn’t very low, and we know this, but their ceiling might be way higher than we all realize.

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