|Two big men that are certainly elite, but in different ways. (Getty Images)|
Last year we ranked the Elite 100 players in the National Basketball Association. Our crew of three, who watch every NBA team on a regular basis throughout the season, evaluated the players using all criteria we could -- past performance, recent production, injuries, projected improvement, character isssues, decision-making, basketball IQ, advanced metrics, team fit -- everything. The ratings are prepared by the three bloggers for Eye on Basketball: Royce Young, Ben Golliver and Matt Moore. The rankings are averaged and listed here in random order.
Earlier this week, we unveiled No. 100 through No. 50 and then No. 49 through No. 40. Check out the guys who fell out of the top 100 between 2011 and 2012 here. The following is No. 39 through No. 30.
2012 Stats: 10.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 19.59 PER
Rankings: 41, 35, 52
The things Joakim Noah does well, he does really well. He defends the rim, he handles pick-and-roll coverages, he rebounds, he blocks shots, he plays hard. He's a double-double threat, but often times Tom Thibodeau would choose Taj Gibson or Omer Asik in crunch time over him. But Noah clearly has value and knows his role especially well. He plays within his limits, and if anything, probably shoot a few more open mid-range jumpers.
No. 38: Luol Deng, SF, Age 27, Chicago Bulls (47)
2012 Stats: 15.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.9 apg, .412 FG%, 14.13 PER
Rankings: 50, 40, 35
He showed it in the Olympics: Luol Deng can be a pretty dynamic offensive player when he's the focus. But in Chicago, he doesn't need to be. Nor should he. He understands his place alongside Derrick Rose and picks his spots well. Where Deng really excells is as a perimeter defender where he's quietly blossomed into an exceptional man-to-man cover guy. He's one of the few players in the league that actually sort of has a sliver of hope in defending LeBron James. That says something.
2012 Stats: 12.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.0 bpg, .497 FG%, 19.35 PER
Rankings: 52, 32, 39
It's a new world we live in. A seven-footer that averages double figures on the block, rebounds well and has post moves, and yet he's ranked in the 30s. If Hibbert played in the 1990s, he'd probably figure to be a top 10 or 15 player.
But size isn't quite as overvalued as it used to be as the game has moved to looking for more versatility and speed. Hibbert still has huge value to the Pacers though, as evidenced by them matching on a max contract offer sheet.
The issue with Hibbert lies in consistency. Some nights, he dominates with his size and back-to-the-basket skill. Other nights, he seems to fade and/or get in foul trouble. Against the Heat in the Eastern semifinals last season, there really was no reason Hibbert shouldn't have been an absolute force against an undersized Miami squad. Instead, he averaged 12.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Solid numbers, yes. But as Shaq would annoyingly say, it's not enough. Not in that circumstance. He needs to be dominating games. And once he starts doing that on a consistent night-to-night basis, he might indeed find himself in the top 10.
2012 Stats: 16.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg, .545 TS%, 15.4 RBD%, 21.85 PER
Rankings: 31, 61, 31
Undersized, and always underrated. Millsap is quietly one of the top paint scorers in the league, rebounds his position wonderfully, has added a solid mid-range game and plays every night with high energy. His 8.8 rebounds a game in 2012 were a career-high and at 27, he's just now entering his prime. He's up for a new contract soon and could be looking at big money. When you have a power forward that averages a near double-double, scores inside and out while also defending well enough, you've got something teams want.
He's sort of been squeezed into an awkward spot with the Jazz after their splurge on big men recently, but Millsap has figured out how to make himself even more valuable by playing some spot minutes at small forward. He's trending up, and at No. 36, that feels just about right.
No. 35: Danny Granger, SF, Age 29, Indiana Pacers (38)
2012 Stats: 18.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.8 apg, 54.2 TS%, 18.68 PER
Rankings: 49, 37, 35
A player with star expectations that is extremely solid, but disappoints in a lot of ways. Granger seems like a guy that should be consistently putting up 20-point nights, but he lacks the ability to create his own shot, and doesn't attack the rim well at all. He averaged just 4.7 free throws a game last season, a number not near high enough for a player with his kind of usage.
He's a gifted shooter that can light up the perimeter and with a lightning quick release, he's a tough cover. But after averaging 25.8 ppg in 2009 and 24.1 in 2010, the expectation was for Granger to continue his climb to an elite scoring level. But he hasn't been able to remain efficient, shooting just 41.6 percent from the floor last season. He's become less of a fixture of the Pacer offense with the emergence of Hibbert and the addition of David West, but when Indiana finds itself in a tight spot, the Pacers look to Granger. And until he starts providing in big moments, he's going to remain a mid-level, but still very good player.
2012 Stats: 11.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 0.1 bpg , .463 FG%, 17.96 PER
Rankings: 37, 34, 48
Randolph goes from seeing his name among the cream of the crop to falling into a place where he's just considered very, very good. The big issue? Health. He spent most of 2012 injured and when he finally returned to the floor, his effectiveness wasn't there. So much so that the Grizzlies actually preferred to keep him coming off the bench for a good while.
He's a unique power forward that can put up double-doubles in a quarter, and has the ability to dominate games. He was a legit MVP candidate in 2010-11 and may have been the best player in the postseason outside of Dirk Nowitzki. But health matters because if you're not healthy, you're not playing.
2012 Stats: 18.8 ppg, 3.9 apg, 3.7 rpg, .557 TS%, 18.50 PER
Rankings: 37, 33, 44
One of the most unelite "elite" players in the league. He's a max contract guy, which has turned him into one of the most overrated players in the game. It's kind of unfair, because Johnson is very good. Just not worth the money he makes. It's an awkward position to be in.
Most saw his contract as untradeable but the impossible was achieved when the Hawks dealt him to the free spending Nets. He's still overpaid, but not as a team's alpha dog anymore. Johnson will be playing alongside Deron Williams, rather than as a featured scorer.
The interesting thing about Johnson though is that he's still one of the game's top six or seven shooting guards, a position that's extremely valued in the NBA. But there isn't much depth there right now, meaning Johnson has been able to put multiple All-Star Games on his resume. By all appearances he's a top tier guy. But he's also been missing that "it" star factor, that extra intangible that takes him from solid scorer to a true go-to guy that you can rely on.
2012 Stats: 18.8 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.7 bpg, .458 FG%, 21.14 PER
Rankings: 32, 46, 27
You know what's crazy? That Josh Smith is still just 26 years old. It feels like he's been in the NBA long enough for him to be 32. Maybe that's because he's come so far in his career too. From a one-of-a-kind talent that couldn't put it all together to a premier defender and one of the most versatile bigs in the league, Smith is a legit star.
Yeah, he still can be infuriating with the outside jumpers and 3-pointers (it should tell you something when your home fans audibly groan every time you tee up an 18-footer). But sometimes you have to let a player be who he is. And Smith is always just going to have a little of that chucker in him. You can't ignore the production though. Almost a 20-10 guy that can play three spots, runs the floor beautifully and plays with energy, and he's really just now entering his prime?
For all the faults he has, Smith is still a wonderful talent. His critics want him to fully realize it all and take a step into another tier of the NBA, but don't dismiss what he already is: A darn good player.
No. 31: Al Horford, C, Age 26, Atlanta Hawks (24)
2012 Stats: 12.4 ppg, 2.2 apg, 7.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg, .550 FG%, 19.02 PER
Rankings: 30, 30, 38
Horford's 2012 season was limited to only 11 games because of a major shoulder injury, but even in his limited time back that included the postseason, he showed why he's still a top 30 kind of player. His efficiency is almost unmatched. He's a high percentage player that defends, scores and rebounds from the center position. By default, that makes him an elite NBA player.
The knock on Horford is that he often fails to really assert himself in games. He averages fewer than 10 shots a game for his career, a number far too low for a guy with his kind of scoring ability. He plays a position that leaves him at the mercy of his teammates to get him the ball in workable situations, but with his kind of skill, he needs to be impacting games more consistently.
The Hawks have remade themselves after dealing Johnson and Marvin Williams, which means Horford, along with Josh Smith, have really had the team completely turned over to them. It seems the best might be yet to come for Horford and if health gets back on his side, he could be climbing upwards of the top 20.
No. 30: Rudy Gay, SF, Age 26, Memphis Grizzlies (35)
2012 Stats: 19.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, .521 TS%, 17.85 PER
Ranking: 40, 28, 30
There are nights I watch Rudy Gay score completely effortlessly and wonder, "Why isn't this the norm? Why isn't this guy every bit the player Kevin Durant is?" He's got crazy length and size, moves beautifully, can get his own shot from anywhere anytime, has a great first step and is a good shooter. Why doesn't he dominate games?
I still don't really have the answer. The fact that Gay has only averaged more than 20 points a game in a season once in his career blows my mind. One area to point at would be free throw attempts, where he averages right around four a game. He doesn't make it easy enough on himself. He settles for a lot of long 2s, doesn't attack the paint near enough and just seems to drift a bit in games.
When you have the kind of skills and size that Gay does, sometimes the game is too easy for your own good. It doesn't force you to work, to really hone your craft. Settling for an outside jumper is an easy shot, rather than working on getting something more high percentage. Gay is still just 26 -- there's time to finally become that elite scoring machine. It's just strange it hasn't happened yet.