Ranking players is an extremely difficult task in terms of looking forward, considering how fluid an NBA player's career can be. Injuries to them or the guys in front of them, coaching changes, or midseason trades/acquisitions have huge impacts on how a player is going to produce. Naturally, production is the best way to rank players, so there is the problem.
Ignoring the old guys who earned a top-400 ranking simply based on name recognition (guys like Francisco Elson, Theo Ratliff, Jamaal Magloire and Jerry Stackhouse), there are guys in the 240-280 range of ESPN.com's Player Rankings who look primed to jump up the list or fall out of it.
Let's take a quick look at the prime candidates to make a major move up or down.
No. 260 - Patrick Patterson, PF, Houston Rockets
Patterson's breakthrough already started during the second half of his rookie season. After playing just 40 minutes total in November and December, Patterson became a fixture in the rotation after the All-Star break. In March and April, Patterson averaged 8.9 points and 5.3 rebounds in 22.0 minutes a night.
As you'd expect of a player drafted by Daryl Morey, efficiency is the strength of Patterson's game. Among rookies, his 56.2 percent two-point shooting trailed only Ed Davis, and Patterson was also uncommonly sure-handed for a young player. Playing time is about all that's holding Patterson back, with Luis Scola ahead of him on the depth chart.
No. 271 - Travis Outlaw, SF, New Jersey Nets
After getting five years and $35 million from the Nets as a free agent last summer, Outlaw promptly fell on his face, losing his starting job for good in February. Outlaw rated as 3.1 wins worse than a replacement-level player in 2010-11; only teammate Stephen Graham was worse.
Here's the good news for Nets fans pondering four more years of Outlaw: He can't possibly be this bad again. Avery Johnson could help that process by giving Outlaw more minutes at power forward, where he was at his best in Portland but scarcely played last season.
No. 274 - Jodie Meeks, SG, Philadelphia 76ers
There's no reason to necessarily think Meeks will play better next season. In fact, he took such a huge leap forward in 2010-11 that he's likely to regress a little bit. Still, Meeks ought to get more credit as one of the league's better shooting specialists.
Last year, he knocked down three-pointers at nearly a 40 percent clip and made almost two per night. For a specialist, he's competent defensively and has some ability to create off the dribble. His numbers compare favorably to those of San Antonio's Gary Neal, and Neal will probably crack the top 200.
No. 246 - Al Thornton, SF, Golden State Warriors
Thornton turned 27 in December, so he can no longer fall back on the potential that made him a lottery pick in 2007. Within the last year and a half, both the Los Angeles Clippers and Washington Wizards have given up on Thornton despite gaping holes at small forward. What both teams came to realize is that there's nothing behind Thornton's decent-looking shooting percentages (.476 last season, .473 the season before). He's an inefficient scorer, a below-average rebounder and a poor defender.
No. 265 - Raja Bell, SG, Utah Jazz
The mid-30s usually aren't kind to perimeter stoppers like Bell and Anthony Parker of the Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 259). Having lost a step, Bell can no longer be considered one of the league's best wing defenders. In fact, Utah's defense was far worse with Bell on the court last season. On top of that, Bell saw a streak of six seasons of 40 percent shooting or better from beyond the arc come to an end, as he slipped all the way to 35.2 percent. Bell might bounce back a little, but the long-term prognosis is negative.
No. 272 - Earl Boykins, PG, Milwaukee Bucks
At 5-5, Boykins has always depended on his quickness more than almost anyone else in the NBA. Naturally, that's become a problem now that Boykins is 35. He's actually coming off his first season with an above-average PER since 2006-07, but that looks like something between a fluke and a last hurrah.
Three-quarters of similar players--a term that's used loosely since Boykins is unique--declined at the same age. Boykins is as likely to be out of the league as he is to place in the top 300 this time next summer.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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