I’m not big on ranking players, but I’ve decided to take this final week of the NBA’s summer to pick my top ten at each position for a few reasons. The first is that Mike Kahn has been ranking players on CBSSportsline.com, and I wanted to counter his picks with my own statistically-inclined opinion. You’ll see quite soon that we’ve diverged a bit on some of our picks. The second reason is that one of my first experiences with statistical analysis online – albeit with baseball – was Rob Neyer’s position rankings on ESPN.com more than three years ago. For a guy who hadn’t previously spent much time on the internet or statistically analyzing baseball, those were an eye-opener. The third and final reason is as a nod to my past as a basketball ‘analyst’ – as a kid, I’d spend countless hours ranking players by position, often by ranking them in individual statistical categories and then summing the totals. (Even at the age of 10, I was using per-48 minute numbers, thanks to Skybox and Fleer basketball cards.)
Let me explain up front the rules I’m playing by. I reserve the right to rank less than ten players if I can’t decide between several players. I’m generally considering players at the position I expect them to play this season, except when I’m unsure (this really only played a factor with Utah’s pair of swingmen and Portland’s power forwards). Please don’t e-mail me asking why I didn’t consider an obvious player if he may ranked at another position. I’m basing this not on where players ranked last year, but where I expect them to rank this year. I reserve the right to consider legacy as a factor, or not. Without further ado. . . .
There is no doubt that power forward has become the glamour position in the modern NBA. The top two finishers in MVP voting last season – runner-up Kevin Garnett and winner Tim Duncan – were both power forwards. At least three and maybe more power forwards rank in my top ten overall. However, the top-level talent at the position may not be as good proof of the position’s importance as is the current depth at the position. Only seven teams did not feature a double-digit scorer in their power forward rotation last season (DET, HOU, LAL, MIA, NY, TOR, and WAS). Only the Pistons – who have a pretty fair rebounder and defender at the position in Ben Wallace and the Lakers – who have Shaquille O’Neal – were not lottery teams. Is it any wonder that of the other teams, the Knicks and Raptors drafted a power forward in the lottery and the Heat lavished millions on a small forward they plan to play there?
10. Pau Gasol, Memphis Gasol is one of the NBA’s most underrated offensive players. While nobody has really compared Gasol to Dirk Nowitzki since Gasol entered the NBA, their results – if not styles – are very similar. Gasol can’t play on the perimeter like Nowitzki and lacks a go-to move down low, but he gets the job done. Nowitzki was one of only three power forwards (Carlos Boozer and P.J. Brown were the others) to post a better true shooting percentage than Gasol’s 57.0% last season. Despite his slight frame, Gasol gets to the free-throw line as much as any of the elite power forwards, while also attempting less field goals than they do. Though Nowitzki’s per-game average is much better, Gasol has a similar rebound rate. Like Nowitzki, his main deficiency is at the defensive end of the court, where Gasol can get pushed around by bigger players. In the course of this paragraph, I’ve almost talked myself into ranking Gasol higher, and he could be a major star if the Grizzlies grow around him.
9. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Atlanta Abdur-Rahim gets a bad rap because of his team’s performance, but it’s not like the Grizzlies fared any better after trading him or he was joining a star-studded Hawks team. If Abdur-Rahim still hasn’t made the playoffs by age 30 (despite having seven years of experience, Abdur-Rahim was still just 26 last season), then I’ll start to hold it against him. It is true that Abdur-Rahim isn’t the kind of player who will guarantee a team success, which is why he isn’t higher on this list. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s an excellent offensive player and not a bad defender. Abdur-Rahim might perform better if he returned to the small forward position, but that’s not something we’re likely to see any time soon.
8. Kenyon Martin, New Jersey Overall, Martin’s 2002-03 numbers don’t support ranking him this high, and I still wouldn’t pay him the money he wants in a contract extension. That said, Martin was an excellent player over the second half of last season and the playoffs, and should be even better this year. After the 2001-02 season, Martin got ripped a lot for his rebounding, but it was adequate last year (11.7 rp48). Martin isn’t an extraordinarily talented offensive player, but he can get off his shot and his efficiency isn’t that bad. Defensively, he has the size to have played center in college and the quickness to defend small forwards as necessary. That combination makes him an outstanding defender.
7. Ben Wallace, Detroit It’s hard for me to rank Wallace this low, since he’s such a unique and extraordinary talent. The best that I can say about this ranking is that there isn’t much difference between fourth and seventh at power forward, and Wallace deserves to be considered an elite player along with everyone ahead of him. To find a player with Wallace’s ability to dominate a game without scoring the ball, you’d have to back at least to Dennis Rodman (before he decided defense wasn’t as interesting as rebounding), and possibly all the way back to Bill Russell (who was a fine offensive player, but could dominate without being one). Wallace takes some heat for his individual defense, but it’s not supported by the statistics or the Pistons’ overall defensive prowess. Detroit is overrated defensively because of the slow pace the Pistons play (on a per-possession basis, the Pistons were just fifth in isolated defense, which means rebounding isn’t considered), but still outstanding – despite having poor individual defenders at guards and Corliss Williamson playing about half the minutes at small forward. Unless you think Clifford Robinson is a truly elite defensive center, Wallace has to get the vast majority of the credit for the Pistons’ defensive success. With Tayshaun Prince now at small forward and Mehmet Okur likely in the middle, we’ll get an even better idea of how big Wallace’s defensive impact is this season.
6. Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Again, ranking sixth is no indictment of O’Neal, but instead a validation of the ability of those ahead of him. Despite ranking just sixth amongst power forwards, O’Neal would probably rank borderline top ten overall in the league in my book. The Pacers, surprisingly, are one of the four teams that rate ahead of the Pistons defensively on a per-play basis. While Indiana has the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in Ron Artest at small forward, a huge amount of credit for the Pacers’ defense has to go to O’Neal. He ranked fourth amongst starting power forwards in block rate last season, and is also effective defending one-on-one. O’Neal is not as good offensively as his scoring average makes him out to be, but he’s improved his efficiency to the point where he is a major offensive asset.
5. Elton Brand, L.A. Clippers Brand is one of the most underrated shot-blockers in the league. No one really thinks of him as a shot-blocker, but he led the league for some time last season and was one of those three starters to rank ahead of O’Neal last season in block rate (Wallace and Tim Duncan were the others). That a 6-8 guy with limited ups could block more shots than the 6-11 O’Neal is remarkable to me (despite the fact that some Clippers home cooking of the books may have something to do with this fact). Brand was not as efficient offensively last year as he had been in the past, but still better than O’Neal. He’s also a slightly better rebounder. Both are great players, and the difference is tiny, but Brand is slightly better.
4. Chris Webber, Sacramento In the original incarnation of this list (I change my mind every day, if not sooner), Webber actually ranked seventh behind the Brand/O’Neal duo and Wallace. That’s another indicator that I don’t think the difference between the players in this section is very large. What really hurts Webber is his proneness to injuries. He’s missed at least 10 games each of the last three seasons, and the Kings basically have to plan as if he will miss that amount of time this season. As he gets older, it’s difficult to imagine Webber getting more durable. 10 games may not seem like much, but it’s an eighth of this season. Is Webber that much better than Brand? Than Wallace? Maybe not. For the first time since the 1999 season, Webber was less than 20% above my calculated replacement level last season. While you could argue that improved Kings teammates are the reason why his scoring average has dropped from 27.1 points per game in 2000-01 to 23.0 last year (again, his lowest since 1999), that doesn’t explain why his field-goal percentage has slipped to 46.1% - not very good for a big man. Probably the biggest reason for this was that Webber was playing on the perimeter more. His free throws attempted per minute went down from .163 in 2001-02 to .135 last year. He needs to get back inside and to the line next year to turn his career trend around. We usually don’t think about things in these terms, but Webber is at an important point in his career right now. If he continues to get injured, be perceived as a choker, and the Kings fail to advance at least to the NBA Finals, Webber’s legacy may be as a player who never quite fulfilled his potential. An 82-game season, some well-placed big shots, and a run deep into the playoffs would go a long ways towards making Webber a Hall of Famer.
3. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas I was about to write something after Wallace about the beginning of “complete” players, before I remembered Nowitzki. He will probably never be anything better than average at the defensive end, but it doesn’t matter. Nowitzki is still one of the top ten players in the league, hands down, and one of the scariest players in the league to be facing as an opponent. How do you defend a 7-footer with a jumper as smooth as any shooting guard’s? (If you do know, please tell me and we can try to get some money out of an NBA team with this information.) Despite just missing double-figure rebounds each of the last two seasons, Nowitzki remains only a slightly above-average rebounder for a power forward. That concern pales in comparison to all the great things Nowitzki does.
2. Kevin Garnett, Minnesota In his list of top ten power forwards, Kahn made what seems to me like a pretty egregious gaffe – calling Webber the best passing power forward ever. Webber is an outstanding passer, and his talent is incredible given his size. But he’s not even the best passing power forward active now. That distinction belongs to Garnett, who averaged both more assists per minute (7.2 to Webber’s 6.7) and far less turnovers per minute (3.3 to Webber’s 3.9) last season. Webber directs traffic from the high post, an admirable quality, but Garnett occasionally runs the Timberwolves offense, which is unheard of for a 7-footer. Garnett is the most versatile player in the league and, while last season may have been a career year for him at the tender age of 26, he has many years as one of the league’s best players ahead of him.
1. Tim Duncan, San Antonio While Garnett was the better player last year, and my pick for MVP, Duncan is the best power forward in the league by virtue of his year-in, year-out consistency. What’s forgotten in the wake of his second consecutive MVP is that Duncan got off to a rather poor start, as did the Spurs. By year’s end, however, San Antonio had taken the number one seed and Duncan the same position individually. Bill James wrote of Rickey Henderson in his New Historical Baseball Abstract that you could split him in two and have a pair of Hall of Famers (one the speedy, high on-base leadoff hitter, the other the power hitter). I would say the same of Duncan. He is the rare superstar who is legitimately one of the league’s top defenders. As a rebounder and defender, he would rival Ben Wallace for the title of best non-scorer in the league. As just an offensive player, Duncan would still be a star in the Abdur-Rahim/Gasol mold; his scoring efficiency rivals theirs despite the heavy offensive load he carries, and Duncan is a quality passer if not in the league of Garnett and Webber.
Player PPG APG RPG TS% Pass Eff VORP
Tim Duncan 23.3 3.9 12.9 0.564 1.27 0.560 413
Kevin Garnett 23.0 6.0 13.4 0.553 3.22 0.566 451
Dirk Nowitzki 25.1 3.0 9.9 0.581 1.21 0.574 450
Chris Webber 23.0 5.4 10.5 0.485 2.35 0.514 219
Elton Brand 18.5 2.5 11.3 0.543 0.62 0.531 249
Jermaine O'Neal 20.8 2.0 10.3 0.539 0.47 0.533 294
Ben Wallace 6.9 1.6 15.4 0.486 0.57 0.472 120
Kenyon Martin 16.7 2.4 8.3 0.511 0.68 0.497 177
S. Abdur-Rahim 19.9 3.0 8.4 0.566 0.90 0.527 298
Pau Gasol 19.0 2.8 8.8 0.570 0.84 0.530 295
TS% = points/(2*(fga+(.44*fta)))
Pass = 10*(ast/to)*(ast/min)
Eff is per-minute efficiency, VORP value over replacement player, my own formulas explained here
The Honorable Mentions
P.J. Brown, New Orleans Clearly one of the top ten last season, but at age 34 (in three weeks) headed for a drop-off after what was a career year. Still one of the best defenders at the position as well as an extremely efficient scorer.
Karl Malone, L.A. Lakers Tough to rank him out of the top ten, but he’s got to show his age sometime, right? Playing alongside three other Hall of Famers, Malone’s production will probably go down while his efficiency goes up.
Antonio McDyess, New York If he was definitely healthy, McDyess would probably rank eighth after Wallace. However, it’s tough to bet on his health after he’s played just 236 minutes over the last two seasons. Who knows what he’ll have left if he can play?
Zach Randolph, Portland A year removed from the bench, he’s this close (| |) to the top ten. Strong Most Improved Player candidate and future star.
Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix Outstanding rookie season portends outstanding career, but he could be in for a mildly disappointing sophomore season. That means he might not improve much – but the 2002-03 Stoudemire was just fine anyway.
Rasheed Wallace, Portland Look past the off-the-court stuff and at Wallace’s statistics – they’re not that all that good. Ranked a distant 55th amongst players I have listed as power forwards in rebound rate last season. Never gets to the free-throw line.
Antoine Walker, Boston For Celtics fans’ convenience, let me provide another link to e-mail me. An even worse rebounder than Wallace, and one of the least efficient shooters in the league. That doesn’t make him a bad player, but it doesn’t make him an All-Star either.
The Other Stuff
Carlos Boozer, Cleveland
Jerome Williams, Toronto
Danny Fortson, Dallas
Eddie Griffin, Houston
Lamar Odom, Miami
Robert Horry, San Antonio
Top Rookies (keep in mind these are again based on this season only)
Mike Sweetney, New York
Nick Collison, Seattle
Chris Bosh, Toronto
Darko Milicic, Detroit
Zarko Cabarkapa, Phoenix
Up-and-coming (Top young players not in the top ten/honorable mention)
Nene Hilario, Denver
Tyson Chandler, Chicago
Drew Gooden, Orlando
Troy Murphy, Golden State
Kevin Pelton is an intern for the Seattle SuperSonics and is responsible for original content on Supersonics.com. He writes "Page 23" for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis.
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