There's just no way I could put the reigning MVP above Tim Duncan, who comes into 2007-08 eyeing a ring for his thumb.
|Chris Bosh's foot is healthy, so expect another banner season in Toronto. (Getty Images)|
So at least there's that, Dirk. The disastrous end to last season at the hands of Golden State didn't extinguish everything.
Rankings note: Players are ranked in the order of their projected impact on the coming season. Upside is taken into account, but only for the next 12 months. Whether you're a bargain or a bad contract doesn't matter.
1. Tim Duncan, San Antonio: He stayed healthy, regained his form, regained the championship -- and his spot at the top of this list. If you get over the ridiculous "boring" cliché, it's easy to appreciate how difficult he makes things for opponents simply by being in position. His poise on offense and consistency on defense allow the Spurs to impose their will the majority of the time.
2. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas: It seems strange that a reigning MVP would come into a season with such little momentum, but we all know why that's absolutely the case. The adversity should be a positive for Nowitzki, who has consistently created challenges for himself to ultimately overcome throughout his career. He's tougher than he gets credit for.
3. Kevin Garnett, Boston: It's dangerous to assume things, but one can only dream about what a pumped-up K.G. will be capable of. This is a guy who extracted every ounce of energy from his body for a Minnesota squad that was typically overmatched. With a pair of likely Hall of Famers flanking him, he's going to be lethal.
4. Chris Bosh, Toronto: The best decision Bosh could've made was to skip the FIBAs to rest a sore foot. He dealt with chronic pain due to plantar fasciitis last season and still excelled. If he can get that situation squared away, the Raptors will have an excellent chance of repeating as Atlantic Division champs despite the retooling the Nets, Celtics and Knicks have done.
5. Carlos Boozer, Utah: No one saw last season coming. After two injury-filled seasons, Boozer stayed healthy and became one of the NBA's most productive power forwards. It wasn't a fluke, either. As long as he avoids injury, Jazz fans can rest easy that they have another franchise-caliber four leading the charge.
6. Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana: It seems like O'Neal and the Pacers are going to make a good-faith effort to give this marriage one last chance. If things don't work out early in the Jim O'Brien regime, expect rumors of discontent to come up again. No one can accuse O'Neal of short-changing Indiana in effort, playing through injuries and shining on defense, but he wants to win above everything else, even if it means a move.
|1. T. Duncan||3|
|2. D. Nowitzki||1|
|3. K. Garnett||2|
|4. C. Bosh||5|
|5. C. Boozer||14|
|6. J. O'Neal||6||SAME|
|7. S. Marion||--|
|8. P. Gasol||7|
|9. A. Jamison||9||SAME|
|10. L. Odom||--|
|Complete 2006 Rankings|
7. Shawn Marion, Phoenix: If he stays put with the Suns, he'll be playing out of position again. He'll also be stuck behind Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, as far as the spotlight is concerned. He might feel it's a thankless job, but it's probably his best chance at a ring, too. His day as top dog will eventually arrive, but playing for a team as potent as Phoenix's might not come again.
8. Pau Gasol, Memphis: A move to center is not out of the question for Gasol, who is content to be with the Grizzlies again following a lengthy period of discontent. No matter where he lines up, he'll be the focal point of an up-tempo attack that's sure to produce eye-popping numbers and a few more victories.
9. Antawn Jamison, Washington: Another undersized option at the four, Jamison makes up for any defensive deficiencies with his offense. Anyone who overlooked him got a reminder of what he can do when he put the Wizards on his back following season-ending injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, averaging 32 points and 9.8 boards a game in a gutsy playoff display against Cleveland.
10. Lamar Odom, L.A. Lakers: He again made strides in Phil Jackson's system, but because of the team's lack of success, Odom's name has been tied to as many trade rumors as Andrew Bynum's. Although Odom does go through periods where he looks out of sync, his play has been a bright spot for the Lakers more often than not.
11. Gerald Wallace, Charlotte: He's similar to Marion in that he can play and defend multiple positions thanks to amazing athleticism. While Wallace didn't enter the league as polished as Marion, he made significant strides in all areas of the game and has yet to reach his ceiling.
12. Zach Randolph, New York: The Knicks hope last season was a breakthrough for Randolph, and that he'll build upon that in his new surroundings. He stayed out of trouble, displayed growth and played hard consistently. He won't do much for New York defensively, but might wind up taking over the role of go-to guy from Eddy Curry. There's no denying Randolph's talent, just whether he's the right fit for the Knicks' bizarre jigsaw puzzle.
13. Al Jefferson, Minnesota: Paul Pierce made it possible for Jefferson to get a little breathing room in the paint in Boston, but he might not have that luxury with the Timberwolves. Teams are going to collapse on him in the post, but that's only going to make him better down the road. For now, though, he's in for more losing.
14. David West, New Orleans: Coming off his best season as a pro, West finally found his niche playing the pick-and-roll game with Chris Paul. West is in the mold of an Abdur-Rahim or Jamison in that he's smaller, but that doesn't stop him from mixing it up. As long as his knee holds up, he should continue making steady improvement.
15. Elton Brand, L.A. Clippers: Yes, he's going to miss a large part of the season and might not play until 2008-09. At the same time, there's a chance he could return, and that's enough to get him on this list. How are you going to have a list of top power forwards without Brand? You're not. This is the lowest I could drop him, given a potential return this season from a ruptured left Achilles' tendon.
16. Nene, Denver: His surgically repaired knee held up fine, so the Nuggets are resting easier about their long-term Brazilian investment. He's still a better athlete than most people he runs up against, and started turning that advantage into big production.
17. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland: With Greg Oden sidelined, he becomes the young big man the Blazers are most interested in seeing develop this season. He has amazing potential and should have Portland fans salivating over a potential union with the injured No. 1 pick.
18. Al Harrington, Golden State: Don Nelson wants more out of him, and after a chance to go through a full training camp, Harrington should be able to deliver. The Warriors advanced in the postseason despite him shooting just 40 percent from the field and averaging barely 10 points per game. They can become a legitimate threat if they get him straightened out.
|Sept. 25||Power forward|
|Sept. 26||Small forward|
|Sept. 27||Shooting guard|
|Sept. 28||Point guard|
|Oct. 1||Top 50|
19. Udonis Haslem, Miami: It might surprise you to see Haslem on this list because of some of the bigger names omitted, but that just goes to show you how undervalued he is. Haslem's contributions on defense are invaluable to the Heat's cause, and his mid-range jumper has become consistent enough to be considered a weapon.
20. Boris Diaw, Phoenix: If the Suns are going to overcome their limited depth and challenge for a championship, they'll need Diaw to contribute more off the bench than ever. His passing skills add another dimension to Phoenix's attack, but his size and ability to hang with opposing bigs down on the blocks might make the biggest impact.
Others considered: Charlie Villanueva, Milwaukee; Drew Gooden, Cleveland; Anderson Varejao, Cleveland; Al Horford, Atlanta; Nick Collison, Seattle; Chris Wilcox, Seattle; Luis Scola, Houston; Antonio McDyess, Detroit; David Lee, New York; Marvin Williams, Atlanta; Kenyon Martin, Denver; Channing Frye, Portland; Tyrus Thomas, Chicago; Joakim Noah, Chicago; Kurt Thomas, Seattle; Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Sacramento; Tim Thomas, L.A. Clippers; Hakim Warrick, Memphis; Juwan Howard, Houston; P.J. Brown, Unaffiliated; Jason Maxiell, Detroit; Tim Thomas, L.A. Clippers; Brian Cook, L.A. Lakers; Kenny Thomas, Sacramento; Mikki Moore, Sacramento; Darius Songaila, Washington; Juwan Howard, Minnesota; Paul Millsap, Utah; Yi Jianlian, Milwaukee; Brandan Wright, Golden State; Shelden Williams, Atlanta; Joe Smith, Chicago; Chris Webber, unaffiliated; Reggie Evans, Philadelphia; Stromile Swift, Memphis.