Before the 2013-14 NBA season tipped off, Ball So Hard endeavoured to put an end to the debate of who reigns supreme in the league by bringing you the Ball So Hard 50. As the halfway mark of the NBA season approaches, it is time to reflect on the season that has been so far and reassess our rankings. Who has exceeded expectations? Who has fallen short? Find out below.
5. LaMarcus Aldridge
Before the season started, nobody predicted that the Trail Blazers would head into the All-Star break with the third best record in the super-competitive Western Conference.
But the play of their star power forward, LaMarcus Aldridge, shouldn’t come as too much of a shock to anyone.
On the surface it might seem strange that Aldridge ranks ahead of fellow All-Star Kevin Love, who will start ahead of Aldridge at All-Star weekend, when Love sits above him at every major statistical category for a big man
Aldridge’s 23.9 points per game is seventh best in the league (Love averages 25.7, fourth best) and his 11.5 rebounds per are sixth best (Love’s 13.3 is second).
However, While LMA’s Blazers are firmly entrenched in the playoff race (sitting only one game behind the second seed), Love’s Timberwolves are six-and-a-half games adrift of the eighth seed and don’t seem likely to close the gap any time soon.
And while it is true that Love has been putting up monster numbers despite his team’s lack of success, don’t sleep on some of the lines the former Texas Longhorn has produced this year.
He went for 30 points and 21 rebounds with three assists, three steals and three blocks for good measure in a win against the Golden State Warriors.
He led the Blazers’ to a win over the Western Conference-leading Thunder with a 38-point, 13-rebound and five-assist master class.
And he stuffed the stats sheet with 31 points, 25 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals against conference rival Houston, also a win.
When Aldridge puts up big numbers, it is usually because he is leading his team to an important victory.
And that is the most important difference between him and Love.
4. Stephen Curry
Steph Curry has finally put his injury woes behind him and his game has continued to blossom.
Last season, it was Curry’s shooting and scoring exploits that elevated him into the conversation of elite players in the league. And while he has continued to pour in the points (24.6 per game, fourth in the league) and bomb away from beyond the arc (167 makes, first), the diminutive point guard has added more layers to his game.
This season, the former Davidson College standout has upped his assist rate to 9.0 per game, trailing only Chris Paul. While he is also heading to the line at an improved rate, his 4.4 rebounds per game is second best amongst point guards, and his 1.7 steals a night is 10th in the NBA.
His improved ability to pass is a major reason why the Warriors have risen up the standings and currently sit sixth in the West.
What is most impressive is that Curry’s unselfishness does not negatively impact his ability to score.
This season he has 20 double-doubles to his name (again only trailing Paul at the point guard position), while he has 25 games with at least 20 points and eight assists – including colossal lines such of 38 points and nine assists, 36 and 10, 43 and nine, 36 and 12 (in a win over Miami), 37 and 11 (against Oklahoma City) and 38 and eight (in a blowout win over Portland).
At times the new pass-friendly Curry has struggled to look after the ball – he leads the league in turnovers with 199. And with several games in the 8-11 turnover region, there is clearly room for improvement.
However, it is his shooting that makes Curry the superstar he is. He’s 11th amongst guards in field goal percentage (46.1%), 19th in the league from beyond the arc (40.9%) and twelfth from the line (86.3%).
This season, after being the most notable snub last year, Curry was voted to his first All-Star game (as a starter no less) with a whopping 1,047,281 votes – the fourth most in the league.
There is definitely areas of his game he could improve upon – most notably his matador defence – but Wardell Stephen Curry has emphatically arrived as a superstar in the league.
3. Paul George
The rise of Paul George on and off the court has been meteoric since he joined the league in 2010.
During the 2012-13 season, George received a total of 80,060 fan votes to be a starter in that year’s All-Star game – placing him 50th out of the 50 players whose votes were released (less than the likes of Jason Terry, Raymond Felton and Shane Battier to name only a few).
He would eventually be named a reserve by the league’s coaches, and then go on to receive the league’s Most Improved Player trophy.
However, it was in the postseason that George began his ascension into the NBA elite. He led his Indiana Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals and pushed the eventual champion Miami Heat to seven games.
This season, George received a whopping 1,211,318 All-Star votes (trailing only LeBron James and Kevin Durant) to earn his second selection to the All-Star game, his first as a starter.
George’s production on the court has continued to improve this season as rapidly as it did during his Most Improved Player-winning performance last year.
With his Pacers holding the league’s best record (40-11), PG is averaging an impressive 22.6 points per game (10th best in the league), 6.4 rebounds (eighth amongst small forwards) and 3.5 assists per game (seventh).
He is also scoring in a variety of ways, having made the eighth most threes in the league (120), 11th most free throws (238). All the while shooting better percentages than last season (44.2% from the field, 37.2% from deep and 84.3% from the line, 18th best in the NBA) despite his eighth highest usage percentage (28.4).
However, it is on the defensive end that George has been the most impressive. His 1.8 steals per game is the eighth best in the NBA, his 95.1 defensive rating trails only teammate Roy Hibbert, and he leads the league in defensive win shares at 4.3 (meaning his defence alone has single-handedly won Indiana over four games).
George is a huge reason why the Pacers own the best defence in the league – fewest opponent points allowed per game (90.7) and the highest defensive rating (96.6) – and his play has Indiana set to be Miami’s biggest obstacle in their attempts at a three-peat.
2. LeBron James
Before we get into the nitty gritty of why LeBron James has fallen from the perch he has occupied for as long as many can remember, we need to preface this section with this:
Just because he isn’t ranked no. 1 anymore doesn’t mean that LeBron James has fallen off.
James falling to number two is all the more incredible when you consider that he might be playing better this season than he was last year.
While his raw stats are slightly down across the board, the four-time MVP is still averaging 26.3 points (third in the league), 6.5 assists (10th), 1.4 steals (20th), and 6.9 rebounds per game (fourth amongst small forwards).
But what he lacks in sheer numbers, James makes up for it with his ridiculous shooting efficiency.
He’s currently shooting 57.2% from the field, which is good enough for fourth best in the league. And when you remove his average three-point shooting (35.9%), LeBron is shooting an absolutely outrageous 63.2% from two-point range. This is thanks in large part to the 78.3% he shoots at the rim. His frame and speed make his simply unstoppable once he beats his man.
All things said, James is leading the league in true shooting percentage at 65.2%. All the more incredible when you factor in his 30.1 usage rate (fourth in the league).
After making three consecutive finals appearances and playing in the 2012 Olympic games, it only seems fair that James slow down at some point.
This season, the Heat don’t seem as concerned with the regular season as they have in the past three years. There haven’t been any 27-game winning streaks and they’ve all but conceded the number one seed to Indiana.
While it would be foolish to suggest that James is cruising through the regular season, it does seem like he isn’t firing at 100%.
After winning back-to-back championships, this years Heat team only has a three-peat in their sights. And while it is strange to see James fall somewhat off the pace, it is just another wrinkle that will make this year’s playoff race all the more interesting.
1. Kevin Durant
He’s been saying he is sick of being second for years now, and this season it looks like Kevin Durant will finally get his wish. Well at least for MVP.
Durant has been nothing short of amazing this season.
He is once again leading the league in scoring at 31.2 per night, he’s upped his assist rate to 5.5 a game (20th in the league), he’s second amongst small forwards in rebounding with 7.7 per game, and leads the league in PER at 30.9.
The former Texas Longhorn is also knocking on the door of another 50-40-90 season, shooting 51.3% from the floor, 41.8% from downtown and 87.9% from the stripe.
But what has been most impressive is the way Durant has carried Oklahoma City, especially in the absence of Russell Westbrook, this season.
He’s already hit the 40-point mark six times this season, including a career high 54 (on a crazy 67.9% from the floor) in a win against Golden State.
With Westbrook out, his production in January was of history proportions, averaging 35.9 points per game over a 16-game stretch.
His incredible January, which included 12 consecutive games with at least 30 points and several memorably game-winning shots, has been matched by only Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, George Gervin and Kobe Bryant before.
Which is hardly bad company to find oneself in.
During that incredible month, the newly anointed Slim Reaper also showcased his all-around game averaging 6.1 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game.
The Thunder currently holds the best record in the league at 42-12 and have all but sewn up the first seed in the West.
It is that dominant record, rather than his gaudy statistical production, that sees Durant leapfrog LeBron James in the MVP race.
While the Heat cruise through an indifferent season, the Thunder are ploughing their way through the season in dominant fashion.
In their first meeting of the season, Durant lead the Thunder to an emphatic victory of James’ Miami squad, putting up 33 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the 17-point win.
There is still a debate over who is the better player between the two superstars. Each have their unique strengths and play entirely different styles of basketball.
But there is no question, this season belongs to Durant.
The basketball gods have been kind enough to place each star in opposing conferences, meaning basketball fans could be set for one of the biggest one-on-one showdowns in finals history this postseason.