The Warriors’ point guard has statistically been the league’s best player on a per-minute basis this year. He leads the league in RPM and Kevin Pelton’s Win Percentage, while ranking third in PER*. While he is not a lockdown defender and can be blown by in a few matchups, he is one of the best point guards at help defense and has the league’s fourth-best steal percentage. As the point guard for what is by far the best defense in the league, it is difficult to argue he is not a good defender at this point.
Over the last two months, Curry has gone to yet another level. He has a 64.7 percent True Shooting Percentage in concert with a 29.5 percent usage percentage over that time. He is at 48.5 percent from three, while averaging 24 points and eight assists in only 32 minutes per game over that same time period. For the season, the Warriors have a ridiculous 17.5 net rating with him on the court, by far the highest of anyone on this list. His shooting off the pick and roll simply breaks defenses, as it is nearly impossible to prevent either an open shot or a four-on-three for his teammates.
A year ago, James topped this list. He was fresh off two straight championships in which he had proved an unstoppable all-court force, and the only wart on his resume was the fact that his defense had declined during a regular season in which he was forced to carry the load for the oft-resting Dwyane Wade.
But another year in the ledger has shown James’ defensive decline is real (and unsurprising) as he enters his 30s. Advanced stats and the eye test the last two years have shown that James is not the night-to-night defensive force he once was. Even in their surge the last two months, the Cavs’ defense has been only average.
Meanwhile, his offensive stats have also taken a hit. He ranks a mere sixth among realistic candidates in win percentage, fifth in PER and third in RPM. His efficiency is way down from the astronomical heights of his Miami days—his True Shooting Percentage is almost seven points lower.
In ranking Davis seventh last year, it was noted that he should be higher on the list based on his individual box score statistics. However, he struggled to really help his team, as indicated by his miserable (for a superstar) performance in plus/minus metrics. It was also predicted that Davis would figure out that aspect of his game sooner rather than later, and that has indeed occurred. He now ranks a healthy sixth in RPM, including a sterling performance on the defensive end. What’s more,his clutch performance has been among the best in the league this season.
Oh, and his box score performance? Davis is on pace to be one of four players ever to record a PER over 31, in company with Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and James. He ranks second in Pelton’s Win Percentage. He has upped his usage rate to superstar-level 27.8 percent, while also increasing his efficiency and (an oft-unnoticed factor) never turning the ball over. He has the lowest ever turnover percentage for a player with a usage rate of 27 percent or higher, a miniscule 6.4 percent.
Harden deserves plaudits for the improvements he has made to his game this season, vaulting him into the top-tier. His much-maligned defense has improved mightily, although he is still “not bad” more than he is “good.” Few would really consider him a stopper or an above-average team defender, although he does have the ability to effectively switch onto larger players in the post in small lineups and to anticipate for steals. Offensively, he has upped his usage rate to north of 30 percent while maintaining the same ridiculous efficiency. With Dwight Howard sidelined much of the year, he initiates nearly everything for Houston when he is on the court. He is the league leader in offensive RPM, ranking fourth in Win Percentage and fifth in PER.
Westbrook has always been an extremely controversial figure, often derided by the mainstream for shooting too much and taking the ball away from Kevin Durant. With KD sidelined much of the year, it was Westbrook’s show once he returned from a broken hand. And what a show it has been, with Westbrook currently recording the second-highest usage rate of all time at 38.4. When Westbrook is on the floor this year, his “True Usage” (percent of the time he shoots, sets up teammates for scoring chances, or turns it over when he is on the floor) is 65 percent, over nine percent higher than second-ranked James. During his most dominant stretch after Durant went down in February, that number peaked at 79 percent. Few, if any, players in history could carry their team like that.
The result of all this is a second place ranking in PER (a statistic particularly impressed by high usage), third in Win Percentage and seventh in RPM. Of particular note, RPM sees Westbrook as a negative defender, and the eyes match that despite his outstanding steal rate. He loses his man far too much, and is a mediocre pick and roll defender.
This year Paul occupies the second tier all by himself, and was still a tough omission from the first tier. He has now settled in as solidly above-average from deep, preventing teams from going under on the pick and roll. Paul pilots what has been the number one offense for most of the year, and kept it at those lofty heights even while Blake Griffin missed time.
Paul only misses out on the top tier due to the fact that he just isn’t quite as dominant on a personal level. His usage rate has been below 24 percent the last few years. He rarely gets to the basket any longer, taking only nine percent of his shots at the rim and 19 percent within 10 feet. And unlike the players above him, he really doesn’t have any argument for being the best player in the league, ranking fifth in Win Percentage, seventh in PER and fifth in RPM.
Cousins has become an excellent defender by most metrics. The Kings’ D collapses when he is off the court, and he ranks third among centers in defensive RPM. Offensively he could stand to be more efficient, but the dearth of shooting and passing around him means he has to take more tough shots than optimal. He ranks sixth in PER, seventh in Win Percentage and ninth in RPM. While his surly reputation and the Kings’ descent into the maelstrom hurt his national perception, Cousins has earned his spot here.
Gasol ultimately takes this spot as likely the most valuable defender in this tier anchoring the Grizzlies staunch unit. He has upped his usage rate this year while remaining relatively efficient, and his passing from the high post powers the Grizzlies’ offense. Curiously though, RPM does not like him nearly so much, putting him at only 45th overall in the league.
Count Lillard’s ranking in this spot as a vote for the value of being able to shoot threes off the dribble in pick and roll situations. While Lillard is shooting only an aberrational 34 percent from three on the season, he launches them with abandon and defenses respect it. While he’s not Steph Curry in efficiency, he has a similar effect in forcing many teams to change their pick and roll coverages. Lillard also deserves credit for improving his two biggest weaknesses, defense and finishing at the rim.
Griffin’s season has been somewhat of a disappointment for a player his age. Instead of taking the next step, he has regressed. He missed time with an elbow injury after having to withdraw from Team USA with a back fracture. Athletically, he doesn’t look quite the same. His dunks don’t detonate the way they used to, and they have declined from 2.2 per game to 1.3. He doesn’t have quite the same explosion facing up his man from the mid-post. While Griffin has refined his midrange jumper to his credit, and cited the desire to avoid injury in avoiding the paint more, the fact is his bread and butter is getting to the rim. What’s more, he still is not a plus defender protecting the basket, although he is showing a burgeoning ability to switch out onto perimeter players.
In some respects, this ranking is based on a faith that Griffin can return to a similar level to last year. Having just turned 26, the hope is that he will.