Back for one more. As I’ve covered before, this isn’t a typical “best players” list. If you see a high school kid ranked higher than an NBA All-Star here, nobody’s saying the prep is better than the pro. Instead, I’m looking at the whole picture: Who had an overall better season? Pound-for-pound, who made the biggest impact on their level? Who made the biggest mark on the entire game of basketball? Who made this season his own? That said, here are my Top 10 — not “10 best” — small forwards from the ‘08-09 season…
10. Trevor Ariza
Nothing to carve a bust for in the regular season (8.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.7 spg), but Ariza earned his money in the playoffs (11.3 ppg, 48% 3PA, 1.6 spg) and was invaluable in getting the Lakers a championship. He took pressure off Kobe by handling tough defensive assignments, he hit dagger threes, and he came up with timely defensive stops and steals when it mattered most. Even if Ariza’s agent did blow his client’s chances at staying in L.A., the Rockets’ five-year, $33 million deal wasn’t the worst consolation prize out there.
9. Caron Butler
The list of NBA guys who had to carry a bigger load than Caron in ’08-09 is shorter than Ne-Yo. With Gilbert Arenas pretty much out for the whole year and Antawn Jamison locked into “I’m getting my 20-10 regardless” mode, Caron had to headline Washington’s cast of inexperienced oft-injured knuckleheads. He slapped up 20.8 points, 6.2 boards, 4.3 dimes and 1.6 steals while single-handedly winning a few games along the way, but the Wizards still lost 63 times.
8. Terrence Williams
College ball’s most complete player was all over the stat sheet: 12.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.3 steals, leading Louisville to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and a spot in the Elite Eight. I spoke to T-Will a couple weeks ago, and here’s how he analyzed his senior season: “If you win games, all the accolades that you want will come to you. I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated three weeks in a row, and that wouldn’t have happened without winning, without my teammates. There were guys who were supposed to be ranked better than me because they averaged 20-something points or whatever, but I made sure my team won.”
7. Ron Artest
Never mind what he did on the court for a second. Seventeen points and five boards will be forgotten one day, but when somebody on the Rockets (I’m guessing Brent Barry) writes a book about this season, stories like traveling to a Game 7 in his drawers and popping up in Kobe’s shower like The Ghost of Queensbridge will make ’08-09 Ron Artest the most “fun crazy” star of the post-Rodman era. And as Houston’s last All-Star standing when T-Mac and Yao got hurt, Ron-Ron got the team to the brink of the conference finals, then joined forces with his nemesis Kobe over the summer.
6. Paul Pierce
This time, everybody was expecting great from Pierce. And while he didn’t live up to his own “I’m the best player in the world” preseason hype, he still did his thing. Like always, The Truth (20.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.6 apg, 81 games) was the Celtics’ most dependable rock. The difference was that it appeared to wear on him more than in years past, as Pierce wasn’t his usual Takeover self during the playoffs.
5. Kevin Durant
Admittedly, when I picked KD to lead the NBA in scoring in ’09, I didn’t 100% believe he’d actually do it. I believed he had a shot at the crown, but the larger point of my prediction was that Durant would make a big leap from his rookie year into legit stardom. And he did. KD’s 25.3 ppg was sixth in the League, and after he permanently moved from two-guard to small forward, he flourished.
4. Danny Granger
The NBA’s Most Improved Player and first-time All-Star finished fifth in scoring (25.8 ppg) and fourth in threes (182), and just missed taking a seriously flawed Pacers team to the playoffs. With Indiana playing so many close games, Senor Buckets got a lot of crunch-time reps and grew into one of the League’s up-and-coming fourth-quarter killers.
3. Hedo Turkoglu
Somewhat before and definitely after Jameer Nelson had his season-ending injury around All-Star break, Hedo (16.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.9 apg) was Orlando’s primary playmaker/ball-handler and its go-to scorer in clutch situations. He QB’d the Magic all the way to the Finals, knocking off the defending champion Celtics and the heavily-favored Cavs along the way, then inked a $53 million deal with the Raptors in free agency.
2. Carmelo Anthony
As much as everyone talked about ‘Melo (22.8 ppg) patching up the well-known holes in his game, his rebounding (6.8 rpg) was actually down from a year ago, and his field-goal shooting (44 percent) was his lowest since his second year in the League. But forget the numbers: ‘Melo finally got past the first round of the playoffs, and while Chauncey Billups was getting most of the credit for taking the Nuggets to the conference finals, ‘Melo constantly reminded everybody who is the face of the franchise. Dropping 27 points per in the postseason, he gave Dallas a buzzer-beating game-winner and a 41-point outing, then hit the Lakers for 30-plus three times in their series.
1. LeBron James
No other player in the NBA could average 38 points, eight boards and eight dimes in a playoff series and still get the brunt of the blame for his team losing. You see what ‘Bron is dealing with? Despite falling short of Cleveland’s championship aspirations and being subject to fan-hating only Kobe could identify with, LeBron owned this season. He took home the MVP trophy (28.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 7.2 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.1 bpg), was a first team NBA All-Defensive pick, led the Cavs to a League-best 66 wins, and made like $184 million in the process.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
5. Brian Cardinal — If he played on a team as popular as the Celtics, he’d easily take Scalabrine’s spot as the Worst Player in the NBA.
4. Bruce Bowen — MiMS didn’t fall off as fast as Bowen did this year. Love the dude, still pattern my pickup game after him, but he’s done.
3. Danilo Gallinari — Booed at the Draft, screwed up his back before the season started, then had a quiet 28-game rookie campaign (6.1 ppg) that was about as memorable as Walter Sharpe’s.
2. Luol Deng — Signed a $71 million deal last summer, then dropped off the face of the Earth. Deng actually wasn’t THAT bad stat-wise (14.1 ppg, 6 rpg), but numbers don’t tell the story. Deng was a bust this year, no two ways about it.
1. Ricky Davis — Anybody could (and everybody did) predict a Davis/Clippers marriage would be a disaster. Ricky Buckets got ‘em few and far between in L.A., going for 6.4 points a night at 33 percent from the field.