On the first full week of each month this season, I’m going to rank the top 10 NBA players at each position based on how I expect them to perform in the coming month. If a player is injured and is expected to miss most of the month, then they probably won’t make the list regardless of his value when healthy. I’ll rank the point guards on Monday, the shooting guards on Tuesday … you get the picture. Your feedback is welcome, even if you want to tell me how incredibly, irredeemably clueless I am.
There are three new players on this month’s list — two guys who used to be in the top-10 discussion for this position and one player who has taken a big leap in The Big Apple. Ron Artest is probably gone for good, Andre Iguodala is off to a sluggish start and is really a two-guard now, and Josh Smith will probably be in tomorrow’s power forward rankings.
10. (New Entry) Luol Deng, Chicago Bulls — 2010-11 stats: 3 GP, 34.3 MPG, 20.7 PPG, 1.0 APG, 2.7 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 0.7 BPG, .500 FG%, .400 3P%, .667 FT%, 16.8 PER
Deng cracks the top 10 this month based almost entirely on the strength of his 40 points on 14-of-19 shooting against the Blazers on Monday. He’s healthy (for now) and still playing good defense but I’m guessing Bulls fans are going to wait and see if he shows some consistency before they load up the bandwagon again.
9. (New entry) Richard Jefferson, San Antonio Spurs — 2010-11 stats: 3 GP, 28.7 MPG, 17.3 PPG, 2.3 APG, 3.0 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 0.3 BPG, .643 FG%, .400 3P%, .632 FT%, 23.2 PER
He’s averaging an impressive 17.3 points in just 28.7 minutes per game, his jumper has been soaking wet and he’s showing a renewed confidence and aggression on both ends of the floor. R.J. is back, baby! OK, it’s only three games. But the Spurs have to feel pretty good about the four-year, $39 million contract they re-signed him to after a very disappointing 2009-10 season.
8. (New entry) Wilson Chandler, New York Knicks — 2010-11 stats: 3 GP, 33.3 MPG, 21.0 PPG, 0.7 APG, 10.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 3.0 BPG, .450 FG%, .263 3P%, .667 FT%, 25.6 PER
Here’s your early favorite for Most Improved Player. He’s actually come off the bench in his first three games, but that’s probably not going to continue for long if he keeps putting up Shawn Marion numbers. Apparently, every good small forward is going off on the Blazers this season because Chandler went for 22 and 16 with three blocks and two steals against them on Saturday. The fact that the Knicks didn’t offer him a contract extension before Monday’s deadline is clearly because of the uncertainty of the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations — otherwise they’d have to be crazy not to lock him up for five more seasons.
7. (4.) Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats — 2010-11 stats: 3 GP, 42.3 MPG, 18.7 PPG, 2.0 APG, 6.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 0.3 BPG, .444 FG%, .333 3P%, .767 FT%, 12.0 PER
Everything besides his scoring numbers are down across the board from last season as Wallace has been infected with the team-wide malaise that contributed to the Bobcats’ 0-3 start. He’s not as active as usual on defense and he’s not driving to the rim with the same reckless abandon of which we’re accustomed. Maybe he needs a little more downtime? Coach Larry Brown has him playing a league-leading 42.3 minutes per game.
6. (7.) Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics — 2010-11 stats: 4 GP, 36.3 MPG, 19.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 7.5 RPG, 0.5 SPG, 0.3 BPG, .500 FG%, .579 3P%, .882 FT%, 19.9 PER
Did we ever think we’d see the day when Ray Allen wouldn’t be the most dangerous three-point threat on his own team? Pierce was over 50 percentage points better from long-range last season and he’s over 250 percentage points better after four games this season. That’s obviously a little bit fluky, but Pierce has made a conscious decision to make the three-pointer a featured part of his repertoire as he ages and it’s working out very, very well for him. He appears primed to average at least 18 points per game for an incredible 12th straight season — only Kobe Bryant has a longer streak.
5. (9.) Rudy Gay, Memphis Grizzlies — 2010-11 stats: 4 GP, 37.5 MPG, 24.3 PPG, 3.3 APG, 7.0 RPG, 2.3 SPG, 0.5 BPG, .520 FG%, .500 3P%, .867 FT%, 26.5 PER
Could Rudy Gay be a max player, after all? He’s playing like one after four games and making it look like the Grizzlies weren’t so crazy to sign him for $82 million. (Mike Conley, on the other hand…) Gay is exhibiting a much more complete all-around game early this season as he is finally using his athleticism to good effect on defense and looking to set up his teammates more on offense. If there’s a red flag, it’s that he’s taking 2.8 more jumpshots between 16 and 23 feet per game than he did last season — and that could leave him vulnerable to a shooting slump.
4. (5.) Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers — 2010-11 stats: 3 GP, 38.0 MPG, 27.0 PPG, 2.0 APG, 4.3 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 1.3 BPG, .517 FG%, .458 3P%, .714 FT%, 24.1 PER
Don’t look now, but the Pacers are off to a 2-1 start, they’re tied for first place in the Central Division, and Danny Granger is serving notice that he could deserve to play in his second All-Star Game if he continues to play like an unstoppable scoring machine. His lofty shooting percentages probably can’t be maintained but the Pacers’ new starting point guard, Darren Collison, has done an excellent job so far getting him the ball in locations where he likes to shoot.
3. (3.) Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets — 2010-11 stats: 3 GP, 37.3 MPG, 23.7 PPG, 3.0 APG, 7.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.7 BPG, .472 FG%, .429 3P%, .900 FT%, 21.2 PER
It’s tempting to read into the fact that Carmelo is shooting four fewer field goal attempts per game than he did last season, but it’s only three games so let’s not accuse him of mailing it in just yet even though he wants out of Denver. After Wilson Chandler’s blazing hot start, could he be the guy that finally completes Anthony’s seemingly inevitable arrival in New York?
2. (2.) Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder — 2010-11 stats: 3 GP, 40.3 MPG, 29.3 PPG, 1.7 APG, 6.3 RPG, 2.3 SPG, 0.7 BPG, .388 FG%, .462 3P%, .857 FT%, 21.5 PER
How many players can average almost 30 points per game when they’re in a shooting slump? Durant’s mid-range game has been off-kilter but you have to assume he’ll get back on track. Based on how he’s splashing from deep, maybe he needs to take a few steps back a few more times every game in order to boost his scoring average up to the 35 PPG mark. I know he can do it, it’s just a matter of whether he can do it now.
1. (1.) LeBron James, Miami Heat — 2010-11 stats: 5 GP, 34.4 MPG, 20.4 PPG, 7.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 0.8 BPG, .471 FG%, .294 3P%, .775 FT%, 21.3 PER
In his first two games with the Heat, LeBron clearly had some rust and needed to get to know his teammates better as he turned the ball over 17 times. With just nine turnovers in his last three games and his first of what should be many double-doubles against the T-Wolves last night, he’s getting acclimated just fine in South Beach. More importantly, the Heat are 4-1 and have beaten their last three opponents by an average of 27 points. Deal with it.