Who’s the Best Player in the NBA?

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This is the kind of question that usually gets people yelling at each other until they are red in the face, the kind of question that gets someone punched in the face at the bar, the kind of question that gets someone banished ignominiously from the neighborhood streetball court if he gives a poor argument. But leaving all the headbands and knee braces and sneaker brands out of it, let’s just sit here and think about it for a second: who is the best player in the NBA?

Conventional wisdom is going to draw two names into question immediately: a Mr. Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder and a Mr. (King) LeBron James of the Miami Heat. Generally the old yarn goes that LeBron James is the best all-around player (currently averaging roughly 26 points per game, eight rebounds, six assists and a couple steals), whereas Durant is the best scorer (he won the last three scoring titles and currently leads the league at 29.5 points per game with about seven rebounds and four assists). Both have nearly identical efficiency ratings, both around +31 or +32, meaning they convert on the possessions in which they have the ball. Both are versatile, putting up numbers in multiple categories besides points, and both play solid defense. Both are exceptional at handling the ball, both are standout leaders on their teams, etc. To me, they are essentially the same player, even though many will argue that LeBron is definitively better because he has more assists and seems to play a slightly more all-around game and is so intimidating on defense. The way I see it, when asking these questions the answer is very much dependent upon what each reader or commenter values; my values are generally different than what most analysts will say about a player. For instance, I value scoring a lot, so I’m inclined to go with the person that averages maybe one less assist and scores a few more points (Durant). Keeping that in mind, the scoring issue is where we shall now turn.

Since I value scoring, my definition of the best player will very much have to do with how well they score, and even how they score. Here’s the tricky thing about discussing LeBron James and Kevin Durant: they have two different mindsets, most likely. I can’t speak with any certainty on the inner machinations of Durant’s mind, but I know for a fact LeBron is the kind of player that just wants to do whatever it takes to win, and doesn’t so much care about points. Durant, who leads the league every year, is equally unselfish, but the point remains that he still scores more. But LeBron can and has scored more than Durant. Durant’s career high is 52, LeBron’s is 57. LeBron scored 45 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against the Celtics in game six last year. LeBron can score more than Durant if he wants to, he just wants to help everyone else, which is why many consider him the best. But why is it he can do all of these things any time he wants?

Well, for starters he’s huge. Most of my opinions on how good a player is come from a probably unfounded measure of what the player is capable of in proportion to their size. Durant and James pretty much balance out in an odd combo: Durant is about 6’11’’ and skinny as a rail, whereas James is around 6’8’’ with the muscles of the Hulk. To me, these two have major advantages over most of the guys out there that go beyond general skill: I’ve never seen anybody block Kevin Durant on a jump shot, meaning he can shoot threes over everyone else without recompense (I saw it kill Dallas and the Lakers last year), and from a physics standpoint there is really no way to stop LeBron once he’s moving, so although he shoots a lot of jump shots, it’s really impossible to stop him from scoring if he really wants to. Carmelo Anthony has almost the same case as James does: he’s big enough and fast enough to make containment kind of a losing battle. Somebody like Kobe Bryant, however, at 6’6’’ (average NBA height), 205 pounds with limited athleticism, is right up there with the leading scorers and is the youngest player ever to get to 30,000 points. Given that he is the average size for NBA players, I weight his scoring achievements more heavily than I do for Durant or James. The fact that he relies more on his skill and wit than the others do leads me to think he is a better scorer.

Carrying on the discussion of player size, let’s now turn to a discussion of assists, since most point guards are considerably smaller than most NBA players. The best assisters in the league are Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash and Chris Paul, each generally between 11 and 13 assists per game each year. Steve Nash is 5th all-time in assists, but his youth is behind him. The two big figures in the game now are really Rondo and Paul, both roughly the same age, Rondo at about 13 ppg and 11 assists, Paul at 16 ppg and 9 assists. Paul might score more, but who is better overall? Rondo scores a little bit less but averages about two more assists per night and is a great rebounder at over six rebounds per game. Chris Paul is obviously skillful, but many of his assists come simply from lobs to Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan since they jump so high; Rondo, on the other hand, gets his assists generally by finding some open jump shooter at the right time and making some swift pass to get it there in time for the shot to get off. So in my opinion, he’s better than Paul.

Rebounding is generally dependent upon one’s size…therefore I won’t generally consider rebounding as a category for measuring a player’s ability, although some discussion is merited: a center can score a lot and rebound a lot, so why is it we don’t generally consider them the best players? Well, in my opinion it comes down to the size-to-skill ratio again. There are centers that score closer to 20 points per game and over 10 rebounds, but they only do so because they are seven feet tall and play extremely close to the basket; a guard or forward, however, is considerably smaller and scores from multiple locations using many skills like dribbling, jump shooting, pump fakes…it’s just harder to do what they do.

So who is the best? In my opinion it comes down to Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is in the mix because he scores 20 ppg and about 9 assists. Rajon Rondo plays a very complete game and is the best floor-general there is. And Kobe is one of the greatest scorers in history and is an exceptional defender and facilitator when he wants to be (he can really harass a point guard on defense and in his last two games recorded 14 assists each). My own personal answer is that it’s a toss-up between Kobe and LeBron. Durant’s height gives him an advantage, and Rondo doesn’t score and defend quite well enough to be considered. Westbrook is right in the mix too, but he still has much to learn about decision making.  LeBron averages more rebounds mostly because he is closer to the rim (he’s a forward, Kobe’s a guard). Really, it comes down to points, assists, and efficiency. I think in terms of skill Kobe is definitely better; LeBron scores frequently by sheer athleticism, which certainly has its merits. LeBron dishes out a few more assists per game than Kobe does and generally shoots at a higher percentage, so I would have to conclude that he is better than Kobe Bryant in today’s league, however it is important to note my own objections. Kobe can assist as much as LeBron and he can get the boards, and score close to the rim, he just doesn’t…it isn’t how he wants to play. LeBron is also in his prime (age 27), whereas Kobe is 34, 17 years into his career. So while I must conclude that LeBron is the better player, if it came down to a game of one-on-one on the blacktop with both in their prime, I would bet on Kobe to win.