James Harden, Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, Donatas Motiejunas, and Ty Lawson all placed in Sports Illustrated's annual Top 100 NBA player rankings.
The rankings, compiled by SI writers Rob Mahoney and Ben Golliver, are based on both advanced statistics and subjective assessment. It is branded as "an earnest attempt to evaluate each player in a vacuum."
James Harden placed fifth overall, edging out Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Blake Griffin. Last year, Harden ranked 13th on the list. According to Rob Mahoney, the only thing stopping Harden from the top 5 is his lack of "defensive aptitude."
All that keeps Harden from climbing higher on this list is defense. Even after gradual improvement, the best that Harden can do in coverage is to become invisible. Houston hides him, as any team would, for the sake of limiting his exposure and exertion. Success in that approach varies depending on matchup, though at the very least Harden does a far better job of tracking his man off the ball than he did a season ago.
Provided that his team has the faculties to cover for him (as Houston does, with Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard, and a team of athletes with active hands), the cost of Harden's defense is negligible relative to what he produces on offense...Separating superstars demands the splitting of hairs. Defensive aptitude, in this case, is a natural part to distinguish Harden from those above him.
The fifth place ranking is appropriate considering the superstars put ahead of The Beard. Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James are all more worthy based on their complete bodies of work. Durant is ranked second despite his injuries because this list is a projection for the 2015-2016 season, not a review of last year.
While Harden was properly rated, Dwight Howard on the other hand was disrespected by SI. 19 is an honorable spot for Dwight, but there are two players in particular that are unjustly ahead of him. I have nothing against Kevin Love or Draymond Green, but Superman is simply a better basketball player than both of them.
Green and Love both do great things for their teams but neither are superstars. Kevin Love tried to be a superstar in Minnesota and we all know how that worked out. Now he's the third banana on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sure he is still an exceptional floor-spacer, rebounder, and outlet-passer, but Howard is much more valuable to his team.
As for Draymond Green, he is quite high on this evaluation. Yes, he is a next-generation player who can guard every position, swing the ball to the corners on the pick-and-roll, and occasionally spread the floor. But like Love, Draymond Green is not the primary option and although he is essential to Golden State's success, he is the third best player on the team.
After being ranked ninth by Sports Illustrated last year, Howard has been bumped down to 19, but it should be closer to 15.
D-Mo makes his first career appearance at 98, which is respectable for the presumed starting power forward. Mahoney believes Motiejunas is a "starting-caliber big who could help in a variety of roles, including as a floor spacer from the corners."
The Rockets' swiss army knife, Trevor Ariza, inexplicably earned the 65 position. Some notable players ahead of him include Luol Deng, Nic Batum, and Rudy Gay, all of whom are lesser small forwards. The argument could be made for Ariza as high as 55, where Batum currently ranks.
Lawson came in at the 51st position, which is a tad too high for my liking. He placed in front of many other guards like Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, and Monta Ellis who are all arguably more talented than him.
Having five of the top 100 players in the league is impressive, but it doesn't prove anything unless each individual blends together smoothly on the court. There is no question the Rockets are a talented team, but the question is whether the talents and personalities can complement each other to create a winning product.