LeBron James will enter the 2006-07 season a new man. He's a veteran now. Playoff-tested.
He agreed to a much-publicized extension in July to remain in Cleveland, which by association keeps the Cavaliers among the NBA's elite. After breaking through with a playoff series win over Washington and a near upset of Detroit in the conference semifinals, the Cavs are expected to get to the next level.
LeBron is supposed to take them.
|It's good to be the King. It's really good. (Getty Images)|
James is no longer the boy king, having come of age. He's just "King" now. With that maturity comes increased expectations. Fortunately, he's reached this next stage of his career well-prepared to handle the new pressures of being an established star.
In three seasons, he turned a losing team into a winner and has become the best at his position. Odds are good he'll be on that throne deep into the next decade.
The NBA's top small forwards entering 2006-07:
1. LeBron James, Cleveland: He's already among the most complete players in the game and still has plenty of room to improve. James is further along than any basketball player has ever been at age 21.
2. Tracy McGrady, Houston: Injuries are threatening to cut him down in his prime, so it's important that McGrady bounce back with a healthy season. His back has gotten the extended rest it has badly needed over the past few years, so we can hope it will withstand NBA rigors. T-Mac will alternate between small forward and shooting guard this season, with the arrival of Shane Battier freeing him up some.
|Celtics' Paul Pierce (Getty Images)|
4. Ron Artest, Sacramento: It's no coincidence the Kings took off once he arrived last year. He makes opponents think twice about everything they do and takes genuine pride in shutting people down. Offensively, he coveted a more prominent role and rose to the occasion when Rick Adelman gave him the opportunity to be the go-to guy. It remains to be seen how new coach Eric Musselman utilizes Artest's rare talents.
5. Carmelo Anthony, Denver: If his play for Team USA is any indication, he's graduated to that next level of greatness, one that should help turn the Nuggets into true contenders. Right now, they just happen to be the best team in a bad division. But if 'Melo continues performing at his current pace, he can raise their level of play. Shot selection will continue to be an issue, but it's a problem he's rectifying steadily as he gains experience.
6. Shawn Marion, Phoenix: There are few guys more versatile than Marion, who again was asked to play out of position last season with Amare Stoudemire injured. The plan will be for Marion to return to his customary spot at the three this season so he can avoid toiling against bigger men, thus remaining fresher for the postseason. Fatigue has been a factor for him during the last two Phoenix playoff runs, overshadowing superb All-Star campaigns.
|1. L. James||2|
|2. T. McGrady||1|
|3. P. Pierce||5|
|4. R. Artest||6|
|5. C. Anthony||11|
|6. S. Marion||4|
|7. T. Prince||12|
|8. A. Kirilenko||3|
|9. L. Odom||9||SAME|
|10. R. Jefferson||14|
|Complete 2005 rankings|
7. Tayshaun Prince, Detroit: He was the Pistons' most consistent performer during their playoff collapse, and some may argue he's their most vital commodity. Prince's offense is quietly catching up to his defense, making the human spider deadly on both ends.
8. Andrei Kirilenko, Utah: Defensively, he's up there with the Artests, Princes and Ben Wallaces of the world. But he hasn't improved much on offense since coming into the league and really took a couple of steps back with his shot selection. He needs to make better decisions if he's going to realize his potential and become the perennial All-Star he's capable of being.
9. Lamar Odom, L.A. Lakers: This has been a difficult summer for the L.A. point forward, whose infant son died in June. Things were starting to really look up for Odom with the Lakers, as he finally began to get comfortable with Phil Jackson's system and role. Here's hoping he can overcome this great pain in his life and continue to flourish.
10. Richard Jefferson, New Jersey: He comes off his biggest season as a pro, finally living up to his enormous potential. His jumper became more consistent, and he started finding smarter ways to score. He's entering his prime.
11. Josh Howard, Dallas: His vast improvement over his first three seasons in the league has Mavs fans understandably excited. Dallas' rise to power got a significant boost when J-Ho started turning into a Scottie Pippen clone. His abilities as a lockdown defender are near and dear to Avery Johnson's heart, and he can burn you for 20-25 points when he feels like it, too.
12. Rashard Lewis, Seattle: One of the more underrated forwards in basketball, Lewis has averaged more than 20 points per game in consecutive seasons. Despite chronically sore knees, he only missed four games in 2005-06. Lewis expressed displeasure with some of the moves the Sonics organization made last season, but it appears he'll be a part of that team's arsenal for the foreseeable future. He's the new version of Dale Ellis.
13. Caron Butler, Washington: Thus far, Butler coming to Washington for Kwame Brown looks like larceny. Butler filled out the NBA's highest-scoring trio alongside Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas while supplying much-needed toughness to a team that badly needed a boost in that department. Something tells me we're only starting to see the beginning of what Butler can do. Keep in mind that during his short career he has yet to be in the same place long enough to grow truly comfortable.
|Sept. 5||Small forward|
|Sept. 12||Power forward|
|Sept. 19||Point guard|
|Sept. 26||Shooting guard|
|Oct. 4||Top 50|
14. Al Harrington, Indiana: He didn't cash in the way he hoped, but at least he's headed to a destination where he's comfortable. His experience in Atlanta raised his reputation. However, there was little success, and the belief now stands that while Harrington is clearly an asset, he's not the type of player capable of carrying a team on his shoulders. He's best suited as a second fiddle, which he'll be with the Pacers to good buddy Jermaine O'Neal.
15. Corey Maggette, L.A. Clippers: It's ironic that the Clips' breakthrough season came despite Maggette missing the bulk of games with foot problems. Once he did return, he came off the bench to keep from disrupting the team's chemistry. There's no question that when healthy, he's one of the game's most consistent offensive forces, able to get to the free throw line at will. Defensively, he's not as proficient, and must improve his effort in order to stay out on the court for longer stretches.
16. Bruce Bowen, San Antonio: He's still doing his thing, alienating opponents with his aggressive defense. It doesn't matter whether his assignments is bigger, smaller, stronger or quicker -- Bowen will find a way to take them out of their comfort zone. That gift has made him a nice living, while he's held his own offensively by becoming a clutch 3-point shooter.
17. Ricky Davis, Minnesota: His shooting percentage slipped after he was traded from Boston for Wally Szczerbiak, but he remained productive, becoming the Wolves' second option behind Kevin Garnett. Minnesota hopes he can straighten out his stroke in his first full season with the team and added a couple of running mates (Mike James, Randy Foye) who should help free him up.
|Peja Stojakovic (Getty Images)|
19. Mike Miller, Memphis: It remains to be seen whether the NBA's reigning top sixth man continues to come off the bench now that Battier is gone, but Miller should be more productive at any rate. The Grizzlies are moving in a younger direction, and the minute Battier was out the door, Miller's role increased. Among his tasks is setting an example for rookie Rudy Gay the way McGrady once did for him.
20. Andres Nocioni, Chicago: Last season's final month shed light on the Argentinian's true capabilities. With Luol Deng out and the Bulls in need of a spark, Nocioni began putting up double-doubles on a nightly basis and infusing his teammates with his contagious energy. He was recognized as the Bulls Player of the Year by the organization and added playoff averages of 22.8 points and 9.6 rebounds. The ability to hit the boards hard and shoot from the perimeter makes him a valuable weapon for Chicago's system.
Also considered: Josh Smith, Atlanta; Luol Deng, Chicago; Grant Hill, Orlando; Adam Morrison, Charlotte; Hedo Turkoglu, Orlando; Danny Granger, Indiana; Antoine Walker, Miami; James Posey, Miami; Jalen Rose, New York; Bobby Simmons, Milwaukee; Darius Miles, Portland; Matt Harpring, Utah; Rasual Butler, New Orleans/Oklahoma City; Rudy Gay, Memphis; John Salmons, Sacramento; Vladimir Radmanovic, L.A. Lakers; Mike Dunleavy, Golden State; Quinton Ross, L.A. Clippers; Luke Walton, L.A. Lakers; Joey Graham, Toronto; Kyle Korver, Philadelphia; Quentin Richardson, New York; Jared Jeffries, New York; Ryan Gomes, Boston.