Putting the NBA's stars into tiers: There aren't many true superstars
After LeBron and Curry, it gets more difficult than you might think
SAN FRANCISCO -- At Monday's media day, three members of the Golden State Warriors paused for the flashes of the photos and, breathlessly from behind us, someone muttered, "That's a lot of superstars."
With all due respect: Let's slow down.
Four superstars on the Golden State Warriors? There are hardly four superstars -- true, bonafide, top-tier superstars -- in the entirety of the NBA. There certainly aren't four on one team, even that one.
In our knee-jerk, Twitter-fueled, hot-take, uber-partisan world, we all lean toward trying to turn every moment into the world's most important, ever. Every team is the greatest of all time. Every player is some kind of luminary, relevant and talented on a scale never before seen. At least until we start talking about the next guy.
In truth, there can be only a few superstars and many, many more pretenders. This is not a knock on those who don't make the cut. Only a very, very, very select few can be, say, one of the top players of all time. One of the top of the moment. One of shining lights in a league full of the best athletes on earth. To be excluded from such lists isn't an insult. It just means you're not in the one percent of the one percent of the one percent.
That's certainly true these days in the NBA, where the list of almost-theres is long and distinguished.
Here's our breakdown of some of the game's greatest players and where, truly, they stand in CBS Sports' brand-new superstar rankings. Some names -- like Russell Westbrook -- probably belong on two lists. But only a select few belong at the top.
Level 1 Superstars
- True superstars, any way you cut it, no questions asked
He's the greatest player of his time. He may end up being the greatest player of all time. His resume and talent speak for themselves, but if you need a refresher on what an actual superstar looks like, go watch the highlights of this past year's NBA Finals. Or, for that matter, those from 2015. His performances in those series were immortal.
And yet, it wasn't even necessarily the stat-lines that made those performances so special. Yes, the numbers were the likes of which we've never seen. But the impact was something more. His impact on games has always been more. For the better part of his career, LeBron has been playing a different game than everyone else. His presence, or lack thereof, changes everything.
He leaves the Cavs, they can't even make the playoffs.
He leaves the Heat, they can't get out of the second round.
He shows up on both those teams, and they're penciled into the Finals.
In fact, since 2011, every team LeBron James has played on has at least made the Finals. You could make a strong argument right now that if he suited up for the 76ers, they would make the Finals ... this year. There isn't a single other player in the world you could say that about.
This one is pretty obvious, too. NBA champ. Scoring champ. Back-to-back MVPs, the latter of which came as the first unanimous choice in history. In fact, this, really, is one of of the true markers of Curry's indisputable superstardom -- the number of things he's done, already, in just seven years in the league (six if you discard the year he almost entirely lost to injury), that nobody else in NBA history has been able to do.
Seriously, 402 made 3-pointers in a single season? Preposterous. Before Curry showed up, the record was 269. He has, in many ways single-handedly, changed the game on a global scale. An entire generation of kids right now will come of age as a completely different, more creative kind of player. The fancy dribbling, the behind-the-back passes like they're routine, the 28-footers off the dribble -- it's all an acceptable, even encouraged way to play the game now, almost entirely because of Curry.
If you have that kind of impact on what you do, sports or otherwise, you're a superstar. End of debate. LeBron is the king overall, but on plenty of nights Steph Curry is the best basketball player in the world.
Maybe the greatest scorer the league has ever seen, Durant won three straight scoring titles before Curry took the crown last year. He's the first guy on this list not to have won a championship (though that could very well change this year), but if you watched that Western Conference finals last year, you saw just how dominant Durant can be -- even on the defensive end when he needs to be.
Durant will get criticism, and even have his true superstardom questioned for his decision to join the Warriors. Plenty of cynics will say he wasn't good enough to lead a team to a title on his own, that he chose to hitch onto another superstar's coattails in search of what some people will now call a compromised legacy, no matter how many titles he ends up winning.
Those people are wrong. The fact is, other than Dirk Nowitzki and the 2010 Mavs, find me a team that has won a title in the last 10 years with just one star player. These days, winning a title with a star wingman isn't a copout, it's basically a requirement. So don't listen to the dinosaur purists telling you Michael Jordan never would've hitched onto another team. He didn't have to. He had another top-50 player of all-time next to him. And he didn't win a single title before Pippen became that player.
Everyone needs help. Durant's no different.
He's a superstar, and everyone knows it.
Admittedly, if we're being this picky about what constitutes a superstar, it's difficult to bestow such status upon a guy who's never gotten out of the first round. But ask yourself this: If you were starting a team right now, and you could take any player in the league with the first pick, would there be a better choice than Davis?
At just 23 years old, he hasn't even hit his prime yet. The kid is listed at 6-foot-10 and says he's STILL GROWING! In his lone playoff series, as a third-year player with little to no help beside him, as the sole focus of the eventual NBA champions and one of the better defensive teams we've seen in a while, he averaged 31.5 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. He's a top-five talent in the world, hands down. Hell, if we're just talking about pure talent, he might only trail LeBron -- and maybe not even by that much.
For Davis, it's all about the injuries. When he's healthy, he's a legit superstar.
Level 2 Superstars
- Players perceived by many as superstars who aren't actually quite there
CBS Sports' Matt Moore recently authored as thorough an evaluation of Harden's game as you'll find anywhere. Twenty years ago, as Matt points out, Harden was a no-brainer superstar. He's a huge scorer. A walking highlight (though not always for the right reasons). Stars in commercials. The whole nine.
But it turns out, defense is pretty cool. Harden ought to try it sometime. He also has a long way to go as a leader, as for my money no true superstar would allow to happen to his team what happened to the Rockets last year. When Harden, on many nights, simply decided not to try on one end of the court, his team followed suit.
Still, there's no denying Harden's talent. He's virtually unstoppable with the ball in his hands, and under Mike D'Antoni things could get scary good on the offensive end. But this is all about the defense. Curry, for all his improvement, is no stopper himself. But he tries. Consistently. He at least does his job by remaining aware off-ball and generally staying in front of his man. When Harden does the same for a full year, we can talk about putting him at the superstar table with LeBron.
Among active players, Paul has the highest career wins shares per 48 minutes of anyone in the NBA. All time, he is third, trailing only Michael Jordan and David Robinson.
How is a player like that not a superstar? He's never been past the second round. I realize Anthony Davis hasn't either, but Davis has only had one crack at the playoffs. Paul has been there eight times. To be fair, he's had some hard luck -- untimely injuries, the trade to the Lakers that would've paired him with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and likely changed his whole legacy.
He's also been pretty individually great over his postseason career, a few meltdowns notwithstanding, averaging better than 21 points, nine assists and two steals for his career. And yet, there's something missing -- that intangible superstar quality that makes good teams great. Maybe it's his over-dribbling. Maybe it's part leadership (see: DeAndre Jordan's exit, in part for a strained relationship with Paul). However you slice it, the sample size is sufficient at this point. As harsh as it sounds, it's pretty hard to call a team on which Paul is the best player a true contender.
That's not a superstar.
In all candor, it's tough to call Westbrook something short of a true superstar because I absolutely love his game. But to misquote the "Godfather:" This isn't personal, it's superstardom. In a league that's moved toward analytics, flow and ball movement, efficient 3-point shooting and not squandering opportunities, it must be noted Westbrook has no three-point shot (career 30.2 percent), turns the ball over (often in crucial moments), and can get stuck in hero-ball mode.
Having said all that, this is a huge year for Westbrook. For the first time, he is the clear-cut No. 1 player on a team that everyone is expecting to regress, probably significantly. In the past, Westbrook has been crazy good in Durant's absence, and he does still have pieces to work with in OKC. Steven Adams is an emerging All-Star. Victor Oladipo will be good. Enes Kanter can play, at least on one end.
If Westbrook can channel his own energy and passion in a way that raises the level of those around him, if OKC can, say, defy the critics and earn a top-4 seed and remain at least a threat to make noise deep in the playoffs, all without Durant, there will be no way to deny Westbrook his due.
Again, I'm having a hard time doing it as it is.
He's an amazing player with an incredible amount of willpower and competitiveness to have come back from that gruesome injury. Watch what he does this season, and whether it gets him close or even into the game's most rarified air.
Larry Bird wants the Pacers to play faster under new coach Nate McMillan, and Jeff Teague and Al Jefferson should add to the offensive punch. But they'll still go as far as George takes them, and for what it's worth, George says he's ready to challenge LeBron for best-player-in-the-game status.
We'll see about that.
Maybe the most well-rounded player in the game, but as with a love life there's a difference between being dependable and actually being sexy. That applies here, too. Leonard doesn't yet turn your head in a true superstar way. He's an incredible defender, probably the best in the world on the perimeter, and he upped his 3-point percentage from 34 percent to better than 44 percent while shooting the highest volume of his career.
That's a head-turner.
Still, to this point Leonard has struggled to dominate in the biggest games as the true go-to guy. That's the next step for him if he is to enter to realm of LeBron and Curry and KD. Can he take over when the other team is solely focused on not allowing him to take over? Given the year-to-year improvements he has made to his game throughout his short career, and of course under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich, you have to like Leonard's chances to go to another level at some point -- maybe as soon as this year.
Great player. Funny. Can jump over a car. Wears capes on televisions. Cool cat.
Not a superstar.
Look, this Clippers team just hasn't clicked, and that's an indictment on all the key parts, which obviously includes Griffin. His jumper has improved dramatically and he's a much more polished player than he was when he came into the league trying to run over everyone and dunk on the world. But he's still not even the best player on his own team. Griffin isn't there.
I'll be honest -- when I hear Carmelo Anthony and superstar in the same sentence, I want to laugh. But I have to talk about him here, as he's been a marquee name since he entered the league, and some people (not me) still consider him to be the best pure scorer in the world.
I sometimes wonder what would've come of Anthony's career had he not forced his way to the Knicks. What if he'd stayed in Denver and kept with the momentum they were creating? He was winning there. He had them in the conference finals. His move to New York has officially saddled him with loser label, and his ball-stopping, isolation tendencies only exacerbate that perception.
If talent equaled superstardom, he'd be near the top of this list.
It doesn't. So he's not.
Cousins can dominate a game like few others, but you just never know what you're going to get. It gets tiresome talking about his maturity and lacking leadership and temper, but it's all still a problem. For all his talent, you wonder if he's ever going to become a guy you can build a contending franchise around.
Level 3 Superstars
- Young stars on the rise
With Towns, it's not a matter of if he'll become a supertar, but when, and I'm saying it'll be by January. Towns will, as much as anyone in the NBA, help shape and define the game in the decade ahead. He's the best center in the game, right now, a stretch-five in a sport without them, and a guy who towers in talent above a lot of talented guys whose names are about to follow.
I could rattle off a ton of numbers to support that statement. I could tell you the historic company Towns is in after one year in the NBA -- and he is absolutely in historic, young Tim Duncan-like company. But this is about the old-school "eyes don't lie" test. You don't need numbers in cases like this. Just watch the kid play. You know special when you see it.
He was, for a few brilliant and legacy-changing games, at a superstar level in the Finals this past summer. He hit the biggest shot in Cleveland history. He outplayed Stephen Curry on the biggest stage. But to make this list you do it season after season, not game after game -- even if some of those games turned you into a champion.
Irving has a ways to go.
He has the personality -- and yes, that can matter -- but he's not there yet. Don't think he'll ever be among the game's absolutely finest players? OK. Just know that's the kind of thinking that has gotten him this far in his career. He feeds off those chips people place on his shoulder.
We'll see how Green handles being the third fiddle, or on many nights the fourth fiddle, in Golden State this year. Green became a much more aggressive player on the offensive end last season, particularly from 3-point range (how can you not bomb three in Golden State?), but this year he'll have to continue his ascent despite less opportunities.
Plus, we're still not entirely sure if he's somewhat of a system player. Taking nothing away from Green, playing in the wide-open space that Curry and Klay Thompson, and now Durant, generate on a nightly basis makes success a whole lot easier.
Talent, talent, talent ... and still we wait. Something just hasn't clicked in Washington. Wall has gotten better every year, and there are plenty of nights where he's the best player on the floor. His jumper is improving, but to be a superstar point guard with even just an average jumper is difficult in today's game.
Wall is a blur in the open court and a fierce on-ball defender. He gets to the rim and his 10.2 assists per night was good enough for third in the league last year. But he's just not quite there. He needs Bradley Beal to stay healthy all year to see what kind of duo this backcourt can really be. Right now, Wall feels a little bit like the B-version of Derrick Rose's MVP years.
For my money, other than Towns, Lillard is the most likely of these guys to someday crack that exclusive company. Might be the second-best point guard, today, and is young and driven and with enough intangibles to keep improving at an exponential rate.
His off-the-dribble 3-point shot is second only to Curry, and he can you kill you with his range. Plus, the clutch gene is there. This guy plays big in big games. He'll be a superstar before it's said and done.
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