Of all the position-rankings decisions that had to be made, this was the only no-brainer.
|We haven't seen Kevin Durant in action yet, but huge things are expected. (Getty Images)|
Not even the most overzealous Denver or Boston fan would argue that. In fact, there might not be a realistic competition for this spot as long as James is in the league.
Wait a second. Who's that over there splashing into the top 10 as a rookie? Hi, Kevin Durant. But unless you're going to step up and change it, you're living in LeBron's world.
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. LeBron James, Cleveland: If the improved jumper he showed off over the summer is any indication of things to come, there won't be any stopping James this season. He rarely has problems getting to the rim, but would become unguardable if teams can't play off his jumper. When you throw his passing prowess into the mix, LBJ might be able to get the Cavs any shot they want, anytime he wants.
2. Carmelo Anthony, Denver: He persevered through more adversity in his fourth season, overcoming a lengthy suspension to make his first All-Star appearance. He also made valuable strides playing with new running mate Allen Iverson. Don't forget that 'Melo looked like he was going to challenge for the league's scoring title for a spell, or that he was the top scorer for the United States in international competition for the second consecutive summer.
3. Paul Pierce, Boston: It's probably right to expect a decrease in his numbers now that he has to share the wealth, but he'll certainly enjoy not having to deal with constant double-teams. Pierce is still too quick and skilled for most small forwards and too strong for opposing guards, and now he'll have more room to work with.
4. Josh Howard, Dallas: He has quickly gone from unheralded to unquestioned All-Star while aiding the Mavericks' rise. His scoring average increased in each of his four seasons, so you can probably expect him to surpass the 20-point mark for the first time. His 3-point stroke has made him a much stronger threat.
5. Luol Deng, Chicago: Deciding to play to his strengths, Deng gave up on becoming a better 3-point shooter and grew into the Bulls' best player by the end of the season. He stayed in shape by starring for England in international competition over the past couple of months, growing increasingly comfortable in a go-to role.
6. Caron Butler, Washington: His season-ending hand injury deflated the Wizards' chances, making it easy to forget how brilliant he was in helping Washington contend for the Southeast Division title. He averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists and steals. If he can make the type of jump Gilbert Arenas made last season, everything in the Eastern Conference changes.
|1. L. James||1||SAME|
|2. C. Anthony||5|
|3. P. Pierce||3||SAME|
|4. J. Howard||11|
|5. L. Deng||--|
|6. C. Butler||13|
|7. T. Prince||7||SAME|
|8. R. Lewis||12|
|9. K. Durant||--|
|10. R. Jefferson||10||SAME|
|Complete 2006 Rankings|
7. Tayshaun Prince, Detroit: He was the only Detroit starter not to make the All-Star Game two years ago, but now he might be the Pistons' most consistent performer. With Ben Wallace elsewhere, it's Prince's defense that now keys the Pistons' resistance, and he's coming off his most productive season from behind the arc, knocking down a career-high 81 3-pointers.
8. Rashard Lewis, Orlando: The Magic paid top dollar for him, and are confident he's going to be the go-to scorer the team has sorely lacked to keep teams from concentrating on Dwight Howard. Lewis' ball-handling has improved to the point where he's ready for this challenge, so it's up to Stan Van Gundy to devise ways to get the most out of him.
9. Kevin Durant, Seattle: The Sonics are probably going to experiment and play him at shooting guard some, but for the purposes of these rankings, I've decided to place Durant at his natural position. He won't be immune from typical rookie obstacles, but it would be shocking if he isn't Seattle's leading scorer.
10. Richard Jefferson, New Jersey: Hopes are high despite the fact he's coming off the his second injury-plagued season in three years. His perimeter game has improved and despite missing extensive action, his chemistry with Jason Kidd and Vince Carter is probably the best it's ever been.
11. Ron Artest, Sacramento: Last season didn't quite work out as planned for Artest, who comes into this season written off by some as a lost cause, too helter-skelter to ever be counted on. That's what happens when you talk about retirement in your prime and make more news off the floor than on it. Always full of surprises, maybe he'll shock everyone by enjoying a drama-free, productive season under new coach Reggie Theus.
12. Josh Smith, Atlanta: He still has significant work to do on his jumper, but his defense, rebounding and ability to run the floor are off the charts. If the Hawks ever become relevant, people are going to wonder where this guy came from. The best part? He doesn't turn 22 until December.
13. Shane Battier, Houston: The NBA's ultimate role player picked up a few more talented teammates to blend in with.
14. Bruce Bowen, San Antonio: He's getting older, but it's still not showing. He's as big a pain as ever, and that's not going to change overnight.
15. Corey Maggette, L.A. Clippers: Elton Brand's injury makes Maggette the most vital of the Clippers, because his success is the best bet L.A. has to hang around in the playoff race. He and Mike Dunleavy have clashed over defense in the past, but it's going to be hard to keep Maggette off the floor with the team looking to make up for the loss of its primary scoring option.
16. Andrei Kirilenko, Utah: If we were to play the word association game and I dropped "emasculated" on you, Kirilenko's name should be the first name to come to mind. His confidence hit rock bottom despite Utah's turnaround, and he felt like he was frozen out of the offense as his opportunities dwindled. It's no surprise he wants out, and figures to get his wish sooner than later since he won't come to terms with his new role. Leading Russia to a surprise title at Eurobasket only fed his desire for a fresh start.
17. Stephen Jackson, Golden State: He endeared himself to Warrior nation with his superb play down the stretch and seems to have found the perfect system to showcase his skills. That should serve to keep him focused on basketball as he continues to try and change his image.
18. Grant Hill, Phoenix: Not quite at the end of the line, look for Hill to help the Suns become even more refined. He's no longer the physical marvel he once was, but is as smart a player as they come. He'll carve out a niche, whether he starts or not.
|Sept. 25||Power forward|
|Sept. 26||Small forward|
|Sept. 27||Shooting guard|
|Sept. 28||Point guard|
|Oct. 1||Top 50|
19. Rudy Gay, Memphis: Probably the top athlete taken in the 2007 draft, Gay got a crash course on the NBA game as the Grizzlies started their rebuilding process last year. That should enhance his learning curve and make him an attractive option for new coach Marc Iavaroni.
20. Danny Granger, Indiana: He wound up being Indiana's top perimeter threat last season, and that's not even his calling card. A solid defender with a versatile floor game, Granger is expected to fill a major role to help the Pacers try and get back to the postseason.
Also considered: Peja Stojakovic, New Orleans; Bobby Simmons, Milwaukee; Walter Herrmann, Charlotte; Jeff Green, Seattle; Andres Nocioni, Chicago; Adam Morrison, Charlotte; Hedo Turkoglu, Orlando; Trevor Ariza, Orlando; Gerald Green, Minnesota; Antoine Walker, Miami; James Posey, Boston; Bostjan Nachbar, New Jersey; Josh Childress, Atlanta; Darius Miles, Portland; Matt Harpring, Utah; Rasual Butler, New Orleans; John Salmons, Sacramento; Vladimir Radmanovic, L.A. Lakers; Mike Dunleavy, Indiana; Quinton Ross, L.A. Clippers; Luke Walton, L.A. Lakers; Joey Graham, Toronto; Kyle Korver, Philadelphia; Jared Jeffries, New York; Ryan Gomes, Minnesota. Rodney Carney, Philadelphia; Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia; Donyell Marshall, Cleveland; Bonzi Wells, Houston; Jason Kapono, Toronto; Dorell Wright, Miami; Kelenna Azubuike, Golden State; Tarence Kinsey, Memphis; Corey Brewer, Minnesota; Travis Outlaw, Portland; Martell Webster, Portland; Al Thornton, L.A. Clippers; Matt Barnes, Golden State; Desmond Mason, Milwaukee; Alando Tucker, Phoenix.