Welcome to Nass’ trip around the association. We are back with part 2 of my NBA Pyramid of the best 25 players in the game today before heading into the playoffs. The pyramid model is solely based upon the current player’s ability/performance, impact, with a very small healthy dose of recency bias. With this much talent in the league right now it’s too much of a challenge to knit pick who’s definitively superior like we usually do when we debate these lists.
So here we go with part 2, players from tiers 2A and 2B.
I’m not sure if everyone expected Demar DeRozan to be the Bulls’ best player this season. Even after his arrival in Chi-Town, DeRozan was thought by “experts” to come to the Bulls organization and help them win games not be the reason they win games. The Compton native has been in the MVP discussion all year. DeRozan is averaging 28.1 points (4th in NBA), five rebounds, and five assists. Deebo is top two in the NBA in field goals made per game from 8-16 feet & 16-24 feet out. He also tied Michael Jordan’s franchise record of 11 consecutive 30-point games and averaged 34.3 points a night in February. The Bulls have been a top-four Eastern Conference team even with injuries to core players Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, and Patrick Williams. Finding ways to win games and doing so while having a career year offensively has made watching this version of DeRozan that much more special. He starts us off in tier 2B.
One of the top MVP candidates this season has easily been Ja Morant, who actually has a puncher’s chance at the award. The floor general for the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies has been a terror all season long despite suffering minor bumps along the way to being named to his first All-Star game. Morant is 7th in the NBA in scoring and amongst the most productive paint scorers in the league. The MVP conversations are heating up even more because since the All-Star break he’s put up 34/5/5 in seven games thus far. Leading this young group of Grizzlies in just his third year has been nothing short of exceptional. The strides he’s made as a playmaker, making the right reads, playing within the offense, and trusting his teammates are really what has set Morant apart from other star point guards at this stage of their careers. Only a few were able to crack that code as a floor general. A code some say the great Isiah Thomas solved and perfected but Morant clearly knows something we don’t. Morant’s playstyle and once-in-a-lifetime athleticism remind you of past flashy ball-dominant guards but to Morant’s credit, he plays to his team’s necessities and lets the game come to him. Morant is more of a complete point guard. It’s only year three of Morant but he’s already growing into one of the league’s most dynamic superstars.
Last year, when James Harden came to Brooklyn amid his last days in Houston, he instantly was playing like an MVP candidate running the show for Nets World. That version of James Harden where he was looking like the best point guard on the planet, orchestrating the perfect three-headed attack of him, Durant, and Irving we hadn’t quite seen until he got to Philadelphia. Critics weren’t sure how his ball dominance would mesh with MVP candidate teammate Joel Embiid but the pairing has shown flashes of looking magical and stagnant. Harden is actually one of the most gifted playmakers in NBA history. An absolute nightmare to defend in pick and roll as every possession most likely results in a lob, slick bounce pass, floater, drawn foul, or step-back jumper when Harden’s often maestro. Through 12 games as a Sixer, Harden’s pretty much mirroring his numbers as a Net posting 22/7/1 and has made the lives of Joel Embiid and rising young star Tyrese Maxey quite easy. Still, a brief sample size but Harden’s massive playoff experience will go a long way for the Sixers down the line. With Embiid, Harden’s not going to depend nearly as much on isolation brilliance to contend for a title as he had to in Houston, so with that, we might not see as fatigued a Harden as we’re accustomed to. Harden’s a career 44% shooter from the floor. Right now he’s shooting sub 42%. His hamstring and quick first step have been something that has caught viewers’ eyes over the past year as he doesn’t leave his defender at mercy like he quite did during those MVP finalist years in Houston. Some of that may have to do with age (turns 33 in August) or mileage that he also put on in Houston. With all these questions about what the final product will look like once the playoffs start, Harden just might be the reason the Sixers are playing into June.
Donovan Mitchell’s career postseason average is 28.8 points, five rebounds, and five assists (33 game sample size). A higher playoff scoring average than Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, and Elgin Baylor. Mitchell’s Dwayne Wade comps measure up fairly accurately with the fact his game climbs a level when the stakes are higher just like the three-time Champion. The Jazz have been one of the winningest regular-season teams since they drafted Mitchell back in 2017. Posting career highs in FG% (.45), assists per game (5.3) and steals per game (1.6). After the trade of Joe Ingles and murmurs about Mitchell’s future in Utah being in jeopardy, the Jazz seem to be in quicksand. Just like Booker, Mitchell is a rising superstar at the shooting guard position and has the ceiling to be sitting amongst the cream of the crop of the pyramid.
Amidst a cool January and February, the god sniper from the Bay, Steph Curry, still had to remind us at the All-Star game that he’s still the best ever to let the rock fly. Chef has kept the Warriors atop the top-three seeds in the Western Conference all year even with running mates Draymond Green and Klay Thompson in and out of the lineup. With even more attention coming his way from opposing defenders, the no calls when he’s being mugged on pin downs along the baselines, and the expected higher usage rate, they’ve all played a role wearing down the two-time MVP. Besides Jordan Poole, there really hasn’t been a real consistent perimeter scoring presence especially when Steph steps off for a breather. Nonetheless, Curry is still 10th in the NBA in points per game (25.8). We can’t ask or expect Klay Thompson to be 100% back to his normal self at this very moment because of the severity of the back-to-back lower extremity injuries he suffered. (Achilles, ACL). It’ll take a bit before his legs are back to 35 min +/ 82 game + playoff shape form. Similarly, when Paul George suffered his gruesome leg fracture at Team USA, he returned for the last six games in the 2014-15 season but really wasn’t back to his normal self until the next season. With Draymond’s return looming, Chef will be the reason why the Dubs are at least Western Conference Finals contenders.
– Tier 2A
Mr. 50/40/90. The ankle taker. Kyrie Irving’s been lost amongst all the highlighting players this season due to the vaccine mandate fiasco that has dominated headlines since before the year began. Even as a part-time player the offensive brilliance is always something we can count on from Uncle Drew. In just 18 games Kyrie is averaging 28.5 points, five rebounds, and five assists on 49/43/91 splits. Much of the rumored “turmoil” in Brooklyn which ultimately led to Harden’s exit stemmed from Irving’s vaccine fiasco. The Nets have struggled with him part time, a self-depleting James Harden, and a banged-up Durant up and throughout this season. On the bright note since the Harden departure, Kyrie has locked in even more offensively. A 38-point performance on the road in a win against the Bucks without Harden or Durant, 50 points on 19 shot outburst in Charlotte, and a 60 point barrage in Orlando have re-opened fans’ eyes at how gifted Kyrie Irving is at basketball. During the Nets March 10th win vs the Sixers, Irving helped hold James Harden to 3 of 17 shooting. In his recent 50 point game vs the Hornets, he became the second guard ever behind Jordan to have multiple games of 50-pt on 75 FG% + shooting shows he’s still very well capable of being the best player on the court at any given moment on any stage. Just like in the 2016 and 2017 NBA Finals. Now that the mandate has been lifted in New York, Kyrie should be able to help the Nets more than ever. Now, when they need him the most.
One of the game’s rising superstars is Devin Booker. Book has been at least 25/4/4 a night since the 2017-2018 season amidst having three different head coaches in the meantime before the hiring of Monty Williams. Making his third straight Western All-Star nod the Kentucky scoring machine has helped lead the Phoenix Suns to the best record in the NBA. Point Booker was something everyone was looking forward to once CP3 went down with a fractured hand and he hasn’t disappointed. Since the Point Gods been sidelined, Booker is averaging 28 points, five rebounds, and seven assists. The Suns have extended their Western Conference lead and there’s no definitive reason why Booker is not an MVP candidate. Prior to CP3s arrival in Phoenix, Booker was the only player to average at least 26 points, four boards, and six assists a game in both 2018-19 & 2019-20. He just became the fourth-youngest player in NBA history to score 11,000 points. The other three? Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and of course Kobe Bryant. So given the volume, we all know how special of an all-around shooting guard he is.
Luka Doncic has ascended into the global superstar sensation that we all became accustomed to stuffing the stat sheet on a nightly basis. The Slovenian guard won the Western Conference player of the month for February and in fact is 33 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists since the month of February started. Especially with impressive wins versus the Warriors (twice), Lakers, Jazz, Heat, Clippers, and 76ers over the past couple of weeks it definitely has ignited some late MVP candidacy. Ever since Luka’s coming out party against the Clippers in the bubble he’s been stamped amongst the NBA’s elite. This is probably the most competitive and deepest MVP race in recent time but Luka should be in the middle of all discussions even as a dark horse candidate, especially with his production and recent Mavs hot streak.
Jayson Tatum has been scorching since the All-Star break. Since the midseason intermission, the former Duke Blue Devil is putting up 30 points, seven rebounds, and five assists a night. He’s fresh off of outplaying Trae Young, Ja Morant, and Kevin Durant in one week, resulting in wins. Everyone knows Tatum is the next swingman scoring megastar in the NBA, with an array of ways to score from all over the court. But what’s been eye-popping is his impact in areas other than just his scoring. As of March 25th, Tatum is the NBA’s total points leader at 1,889. Tatum is also averaging a career-high in rebounds (8.4). That’s more than LeBron James, John Collins, and Mo Bamba. Currently first in the NBA in defensive win shares (0.172), Ime Udoka’s defensive schemes revolve around constant switching, rotating, and help defense. All of that empowers Tatum’s strengths like his athleticism, long wingspan, and agility to the best of his ability which is why we’re starting to now grasp this superstar leap from Tatum. The only players that have averaged Tatum’s current stat line of 26/8/4/1/0.7 in a season are LeBron (2012-13), Bird (1987-88), Embiid (2021-22), Giannis (2017-18), Kareem Abdul Jabbar (1973-74), Jordan (1988-89), C-Webb (2000-01), David Robinson (1993-94), and Bob McAdoo (1975-76). The Celtics have won 12 of their last 14 and are now 1.5 games out from the two seed. Just like Luka, Tatum has played himself onto the MVP ballot as Boston continues to build on their stellar play in the second half. He comes in at tier 2A.
Next: Part 3 of Nass’ pyramid.
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