By Chris Le
(Original post on 10/23/07)
Small Forward appears to be the dominant position of the future. With the addition of incoming rookie Kevin Durant (whom I was tempted to put in the top ten), the three spot hosts the greatest collection of young, proven talent in the game. These hybrid athletic freaks are large, fast and nimble, and they can do it all: score, board, dish and play D.
But even with such a congestion of quality players at this one position, is there any doubt as to who is the best? LeBron James, at 22-years-old, is arguably the best baller in the league—and he’s getting better. It’s only a matter of time until he’s collecting MVPs (and rings?) as if it were a hobby.
LeBron James – Who could forget King James’s series against the Detroit Pistons, particularly that 48-point outburst in game 5? That ish was Jordan-esque. The Spurs series, on the other hand, not so much. With minimal off-season moves and training camp holdouts by Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t getting any better. But LeBron is, judging by his summer performance with Team USA. If his jumper is as good this season as it was this past summer, there truly won’t be any way to stop him.
- Tracy McGrady – There was a decent argument for T-Mac in last year’s MVP race. With Yao Ming missing most of the season, McGrady (24.6 ppg, 6.5 apg, 5.3 rpg) took hold of the reins and surged the Houston Rockets to a 52-30 record, 5th best in the NBA. Together and without ailments, Yao and T-Mac make one of the most intimidating duos in the game.
- Carmelo Anthony – A deadly jumper and an increasingly quick first step make the Denver forward one of the toughest defensive assignments in the NBA. As natural a scorer as they come, he trailed only Kobe Bryant with 28.9 ppg. And, with 22.4 shot attempts a game (second most in 2007), Anthony has free reign to take any shot he wants, even with running mate Allen Iverson’s scoring prowess. With more familiarity with each other, I expect ‘Melo and AI to average at least 27 a night each.
- Shawn Marion – I’m a little tired of all the “most underrated player in the league” talk, as I view him as lucky to be playing alongside Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. Life is nice when you play with the best point in the game and arguably its best center. I just don’t think the Matrix can create his own shot, thus never allowing him to be a team’s first option. Still, I give him credit for playing out of position and still putting up 20 and 10 a night, and his all-around game (particularly his defense).
- Paul Pierce – An extremely cerebral scorer, breaking down and then exploiting his defender’s positional or physical weakness. He can post up, spot up, and even take it to the hole with decent efficiency. That is, if he stays healthy. And that he didn’t do in 2007, playing only 47 games. With the addition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, though, Pierce will be relieved to bear a lighter offensive load, and expect him to be re-invigorated now playing on a conference contender. Whether or not the Celtics are a title contender is yet to be seen.
- Josh Howard – He may be overshadowed by fellow teammate and reigning MVP Dirk Nowitzki, but Howard is the Dallas Mavericks’ most versatile player and is a mismatch for any team in the NBA. And he steps up his game in the postseason, leading the Mavs with 21.3 ppg in last year’s playoffs (where did you go, Dirk?)
- Ron Artest – This is a gamble pick. You already know his reputation, that he’s utterly insane. But if he can keep his head on straight even just a little, he’s a valuable addition to any team. His rough-around-the-edges (if not ugly) offensive game is highly effective, and, when his heart is in it, he’s one of the top two perimeter defenders in the game.
- Tayshaun Prince – I don’t think people realize how vital Prince is to the Detroit Pistons’ system. It’s probably because his demeanor is as subtle as his game, but his defense, the best on a solid defensive squad, can shut down even the most prolific of scorers. He’s like a wet blanket. But don’t sleep on his offense. His back-to-the basket adeptness is on par with most big men and his proficiency from three-point range is better than his 0.386 percentage indicates. There’s not much he can’t do.
- Caron Butler – 2007 was a banner year for the Washington Wizard, who had career highs in scoring (19.1), rebounding (7.4), assists (3.7), and steals (2.1). Had he and Gilbert Arenas been healthy for the playoffs, the Wizards could’ve made a big splash, possibly defeating the eventual conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
- Luol Deng – I can’t believe the Chicago Bulls even thought about shipping Deng. He’s the best scoring threat on a team of productive scorers and displayed impressive accuracy (0.524) and instances of being unstoppable in the playoffs, dropping 22.2 a night. His evolution as a scorer is just in its infancy, and if he develops even a semblance of a three-point shot, he should be among the league’s most prolific point producers.
Honorable Mention: Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier, Richard Jefferson, Bruce Bowen