I recently asked a few of my friends to define superstardom in the NBA. Their responses echoed many of my own thoughts regarding elite level play on both ends of the floor delivered consistently over the 82 game season ensuring a playoff spot, and a general sense that a superstar exerts an influence over every game. The exercise was brought about after I watched the White Mamba, Brian Scalabrine, talk to Bill Simmons about Kevin Garnett. Scalabrine described Garnett, and former teammate Jason Kidd, as culture changers. Once they became a part of the organization, everything changed meetings, weight room, communication and, ultimately wins and losses. The commitment and focus level of both players defined the organization and pushed them to title contention. With this standard in mind, I have assessed the current crop of NBA players in terms of superstardom.
Lebron James has become a two-time champion in Miami, and the World’s Greatest Player, but elevating the Cleveland Steamers to a finals appearance and perennial contention branded him a Superstar. Kevin Durant has had a fantastic season, but King James sets the two-way standard for greatness in the league and remains MVP until dethroned.
Kevin Durant is the game’s best scorer, and has displayed an even more complete game this season. Often playing without Westbrook this season, he has driven the Thunder to contention and played with a consistent intensity evidencing his discontent with being the league’s second best player.
At this point, I do not believe there is a clear third best player in the league, but the next ten players (in no particular order) satisfy the requirements for superstardom.
Paul George is a fantastic two-way player that is in the process of a meteoric rise to superstardom. He has the rare physical build to compete with James and Durant, earned his playoff chops last year and has worked hard to improve his offensive game. He is clearly the cultural standard bearer for the title-contending Pacers.
James Harden takes a lot of crap for his oft-times indifferent defense, and it’s deserved as his play on that end of the floor is far from elite, but what cannot be denied is his immediate impact on the Rockets last season. He shaped and defined their style of play, like Nash in Phoenix, brought them to the playoffs and created such a positive vibe around the team that Dwight Howard signed vaulting Houston to another level.
Dwight Howard is in some sense the quintessential superstar from his time in Orlando where he carried a flawed cast of mediocre players to the playoffs every season and the finals once. Despite his farting, immaturity and unpolished offensive game, Dwight Howard’s rebounding, defense and significant gap over all other centers ensures any team his is on will be in the playoffs.
Chris Paul is a culture changer. He is competitive as hell and that pervades any organization that he is a part of. His trade to the Clippers immediately re-branded the organization from tragic, incompetent losers to contenders before the maturation of Blake Griffin.
Blake Griffin has made the leap this year playing at an insane level, particularly in the absence of Chris Paul for a significant stretch of the season. Blake is not an elite defensive force, but has diversified his offensive game, and seems to have built some substantive character and toughness this season.
Russell Westbrook is probably a questionable call for many as he plays uncomfortably in the shadow of Kevin Durant and has had three knee surgeries in the last year, but I love the guy. He combines elite athleticism with genuine toughness that transforms any team that he is on. Consider his willingness to have the three surgeries this year, and not once was there a whisper of him shutting himself down. That resonates through an organization.
Joakim Noah is another player that has made the leap, and probably did so last year in the playoffs. Noah is a complete two-way player, and his competitiveness is at the cultural core of the resilient Bulls, who will not accept mediocrity. Although their temperament and positions differ, I see the positive teammate qualities of Scottie Pippen in Noah.
Steph Curry is another player lacking on the defensive end, and can be fragile at times, but his offensive game is transcendent. He is the cultural standard bearer for the genuine rise to contention of the long-suffering Warriors. Further, like Harden, he is stylistic difference-maker invoking Steve Nash’s time as a superstar.
Tony Parker has almost anonymously become the superstar of the machine-like Spurs. Parker has complete mastery of his craft on both ends of the floor, and has been seasoned by over a decade of deep playoff combat. He has sustained the Spurs through Duncan and Manu’s aging, and the endless sea of change among the supporting cast.
Marc Gasol is another player under the radar, but he provides elite level performance on both ends of the floor while drawing rave reviews as a teammate. Since his maturation as a player, he has kept the Grizzlies in the playoffs.
Dirk Nowitzki is the final true superstar in the NBA at this point, and he barely made it. Dirk is aging and does not offer as much to the game as he did during the earlier part of his career, but he is still an elite offensive player and the very foundation of Mavericks basketball which has enjoyed a resurgence likely to get them to the playoffs this year.
SUPERSTARS IN WINTER
Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, D-Wade and Tim Duncan have all played at the superstar level over the course of long careers in the league. Each has won a title as cultural standard bearer for their team, but due to age and injury no longer consistently perform at a superstar level over the course of a full season.
SUPERSTARS IN TRANSITION
Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo have both been superstars, but Rose has barely played in two years and Rondo missed a chunk of this season while stuck on a built-to-tank Celtics team.
SUPERSTARS IN PROCESS
Anthony Davis, John Wall, Lemarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard have shown superstar level play, but must do so consistently. Davis is the closest at this point and has a strong argument to be a superstar already. I hesitated including him as he has not yet made it to the playoffs, but regard him as a lock going forward. Wall has found his game as an NBA difference-maker, and recently received a max extension from the Wizards. Again, no playoffs, no superstar. Aldridge and Lillard have paired to push the Blazers back to the playoffs, but neither is in my estimation a transcendent talent and require some solid playoff appearance to complete their resumes.
THANKS, BUT NO THANKS
Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony are all statistical machines, but in the instance of Love and Irving lack playoff appearances. A superstar should move the needle in the win column and both these guys have failed to do so. Anthony is a bit different. He has been to the playoffs, but their is something disingenuous about him that has prevented him from becoming a true winner. I believe for all his talents, he is not a culture changer and falls below the level of superstardom.