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The Decade's Best (12/29)
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December 30, 2009
The Decade's Best
Top NBA Players

by Kevin Pelton


As the first decade of the 2000s draws to a close, it's time to look back. Basketball Prospectus will do just that this week, starting yesterday with the decade's best teams, continuing today with the best players and wrapping up tomorrow with an updated version of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract "Decade in a Box" we did last January.

To rank the decade's top NBA players, I've turned to my Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) statistic. Because it incorporates replacement level, I think WARP does a solid job of factoring in both peak and career value without any adjustments. I tried a more complicated metric akin to the one used by James in the Historical Baseball Abstract that included best season, best three consecutive seasons and average WARP per season in addition to total WARP, but it made relatively little difference in the rankings at the top.

I am considering only games played within the decade chronologically, so 1999-00 values were adjusted to cover only the portion of the season starting Jan. 1 and this season is included through Monday night.

1. Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves/Boston Celtics (195.8 WARP)

9900  0001  0102  0203  0304  0405  0506  0607  0708  0809  0910  Total
12.5  18.9  19.9  24.3  27.4  24.9  21.6  18.1  16.1   8.2   3.8  195.8

2. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs (191.9 WARP)

9900  0001  0102  0203  0304  0405  0506  0607  0708  0809  0910  Total
10.8  19.3  24.9  24.3  19.4  16.8  17.1  19.9  17.2  15.9   6.5  191.9

To me, there are just two candidates for the honor of "Player of the Decade." Both of them play power forward and they spent the early part of the decade battling each other in the Midwest Division. The numbers are extraordinarily close, but they ever so slightly favor Garnett over rival Tim Duncan. The case for Duncan is obvious. He won two MVPs to Garnett's one, led three title teams to Garnett's one and generally played on much more successful teams. Garnett's advantage is in terms of versatility. He was the superior passer by a significant margin and capable of defending more positions than Duncan.

Two things tip the scales in favor of Duncan in my opinion. First, while I don't want to make too much of it, I think Garnett's issues late in close games are legitimate. Creating his own shot was never his strength, and Garnett has been best when he had teammates capable of taking on that role--Sam Cassell in 2003-04 and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen with the Celtics. Duncan had the benefit of playing with two creators in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker most of the decade, but the 2003 championship team was much more Duncan-oriented. When he needed to, Duncan was better at creating a midrange look on his own than Garnett.

Second, while the success Garnett has enjoyed since being traded to Boston has quieted the silly talk that he isn't a winner, I do find it somewhat hard to believe that the best player of the decade played on teams that went 33-49 in 2005-06 and 32-50 in 2006-07. Garnett was rated as worth nearly 40 Wins Above Replacement Player in those two seasons, which suggests his teammates were a combined five Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP assumes a replacement team would win 10 games in a season). Though they were bad, I'm not sure the rest of the Timberwolves were quite so epically awful. Take away a win or two from Garnett those seasons and the gap between him and Duncan is essentially nonexistent.

Either way, it is difficult to go wrong between Garnett and Duncan. They are arguably the two greatest defensive power forwards of all time, anchoring some of the best defenses in modern history, and were capable at the offensive end of the floor. If you want one more point for Duncan, the 2003 NBA Finals might have been the best stretch of individual basketball in the decade. How does 23.8 ppg, 17.0 rpg, 5.3 apg and 5.3 bpg strike you?

3. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers (160.4 WARP)

9900  0001  0102  0203  0304  0405  0506  0607  0708  0809  0910  Total
 9.7  13.5  15.0  20.5  13.0  13.4  18.6  16.8  18.9  14.5   6.4  160.4

People I respect, most notably NBA.com's David Aldridge, have chosen Bryant as the decade's best player. It's understandable, given the success he and his teams have enjoyed, but I'm still not seeing it. I think picking Bryant is putting too much emphasis on recent years as opposed to the first six years of the decade, during which Bryant's reputation was decidedly mixed. Bryant probably contributed as much value on offense as Duncan and Garnett during the decade, but even if you agree with his perennial appearances on the All-Defensive First Team (and I'm dubious), guards simply aren't as important to defenses as big men, which helps explain why Bryant has played on some mediocre (or worse) Lakers defenses. (Even in 2006-07, when the Timberwolves bottomed out under the forgettable Randy Wittman, their defense was better than the Lakers' that season.) Surprisingly, by this method Bryant succeeds more with reliability than dominance. Bryant's worst full season of the decade came in 2003-04, when he was still rated as worth 13.0 WARP. Only Duncan beats that.

4. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks (155.1 WARP)

9900  0001  0102  0203  0304  0405  0506  0607  0708  0809  0910  Total
 3.8  16.1  16.1  18.8  12.0  18.2  19.7  18.5  15.1  11.3   5.5  155.1

A tender 21 when the decade began, Nowitzki came into his own in 2000-01 and has been almost as good as anyone in the league ever since, completing the trio of terrific power forwards that ruled the NBA in the decade. Excellent during a five-year stretch from 2002-03 through 2006-07 (except, oddly, 2003-04, when he struggled in Steve Nash's last year in Dallas), Nowitzki earned an MVP for his role in leading a 67-win Mavericks team. The Warriors' upset over Dallas in the playoffs heralded a downturn for both player and team, but the Mavericks are back in contention this season as Nowitzki continues to chase a championship.

5. Jason Kidd, Phoenix Suns/New Jersey Nets/Dallas Mavericks (143.7 WARP)

9900  0001  0102  0203  0304  0405  0506  0607  0708  0809  0910  Total
 6.0  15.7  16.1  19.1  13.3  12.1  16.1  16.2  13.1  11.9   4.1  143.7

Kidd was all the rage in 2001-02, when his arrival in New Jersey helped herald a new era of success for the Nets. Kidd probably got too much credit then, since fellow newcomers Richard Jefferson and Todd MacCulloch and healthy Kerry Kittles and Kenyon Martin also had plenty to do with New Jersey's turnaround. The next several years more than made up for it, as Kidd was taken for granted as he continued to post All-Star seasons deep into his 30s. Father Time and microfracture knee surgery have combined to rob Kidd of the quickness that made him so special as a young player, but he's responded by improving his once-maligned jumper and remains a quality defender against bigger guards. Even nearing 37, he's one of the league's best point guards and edges out former teammate Nash as my Point Guard of the Decade.

6. Shaquille O'Neal, L.A. Lakers/Miami Heat/Phoenix Suns/Cleveland Cavaliers (142.6 WARP)

9900  0001  0102  0203  0304  0405  0506  0607  0708  0809  0910  Total
17.1  23.5  18.8  19.0  15.8  16.8  10.1   4.8   4.5  10.8   1.4  142.6

As a reminder of the O'Neal's former level of dominion over the NBA, I think of this: At the start of the decade, when I was just starting to navigate the budding world of APBRmetrics, I used a simple version of the so-called "laugh test" to evaluate rating systems. Did they have O'Neal No. 1? If not, they deserved no more of my time. (Call it the Shaq Test.) That was how far above and beyond his peers O'Neal was during 1999-00 and 2000-01. His 17.1 WARP over the final three and a half months of the 1999-00 season was better than all but six other players managed the entire season. O'Neal had a massive 6.1 WARP advantage over that season's runner-up, Gary Payton; no wonder his MVP selection was within a single vote (cast for Allen Iverson) of being unanimous. O'Neal probably should have won the next year, too, but voters preferred to vote for Iverson's David rather than O'Neal's Goliath. The last four years have not been especially kind to O'Neal, though he did rally to post another All-Star campaign last season in Phoenix. Despite his age, O'Neal would probably move as high as fourth on this list if postseason performance was factored in.

7. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (132.0 WARP)

9900  0001  0102  0203  0304  0405  0506  0607  0708  0809  0910  Total
                         8.2  23.5  22.6  18.1  22.6  26.9  10.0  132.0

Fittingly, the Cleveland teammates represent opposite extremes of 2000s success. While O'Neal slowly faded after a strong start to the decade, King James was just beginning his reign over the rest of the league. Because this method gives heavy weight to longevity, James is the only player in the top 10 who was not active in 1999-00. In fact, he's the only such player in the top 16. Suffice it to say that James should rank even higher when we repeat this exercise in 10 years.

8. Tracy McGrady, Toronto Raptors/Orlando Magic/Houston Rockets (128.2 WARP)

9900  0001  0102  0203  0304  0405  0506  0607  0708  0809  0910  Total
 8.6  18.5  18.3  23.0  15.0  13.7   7.7  13.7   6.8   2.8   0.0  128.2

In case you've forgotten how long a decade can be, heed the case of McGrady. Within 10 years, he has gone from promising youngster (just 20 when the 2000s were ushered in) to legitimate superstar to troubled talent to the point where his career is now in limbo in the wake of microfracture knee surgery. McGrady is still young enough to have a second act once his situation with the Houston Rockets is resolved, but don't let everything that has happened since then overshadow what a terrific player McGrady was during his days with the Orlando Magic. He combined efficiency and volume in a way no scorer could match at the time.

9. Steve Nash, Dallas Mavericks/Phoenix Suns (127.7 WARP)

9900  0001  0102  0203  0304  0405  0506  0607  0708  0809  0910  Total
 1.8   9.9  12.4  14.4  10.4  14.4  16.6  16.9  14.3   9.8   6.9  127.7

While the rest of us were worrying about the Y2K bug, Nash was trying to fight off Robert Pack for the starting job in Dallas. Back then, it would have been nearly impossible to imagine Nash ending the decade with as many MVPs as Bryant and O'Neal combined. At some point in the 2000-01 season, everything clicked in and Nash began the best offensive stretch in modern NBA history. At the risk of repeating myself, Nash has led the five best offenses (as measured by percentage above league average) since the NBA-ABA merger. That's good, right? The combination of court vision, sneaky athleticism, deadeye shooting and his ability to make teammates better has made Nash an unparalleled offensive force. Ultimately, Nash's longevity--once questioned--might end up his defining characteristic. He is enjoying a season that is on pace to be the best of his career (17.7 WARP, third in the league) while going on 36 years of age.

10. Elton Brand, Chicago Bulls/L.A. Clippers/Philadelphia 76ers (127.7 WARP)

9900  0001  0102  0203  0304  0405  0506  0607  0708  0809  0910  Total
 9.5  11.6  18.8  13.2  15.0  18.0  20.7  16.7   0.8   1.2   2.3  127.7

The decade's most underappreciated star player, Brand is now in danger of being remembered more for his precipitous decline following back-to-back seasons lost to injury than what he accomplished in the first seven-plus seasons of the decade. During that span, Brand actually ranked fourth in WARP, behind Garnett, Duncan and O'Neal. Once metronomic in his consistency, Brand carried inept L.A. Clippers teams, remaining professional in the midst of a revolving door of coaches and teammates. Finally, player and team broke through in 2005-06, winning a playoff series for the first time since the Clippers moved to California. Barring a stunning comeback, that will prove the highpoint of Brand's career. At his best, he was an efficient go-to scorer, a solid rebounder and a sneaky good defender.

The Next 10

11. Shawn Marion, Phoenix Suns/Miami Heat/Toronto Raptors/Dallas Mavericks (127.3 WARP)
12. Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics (125.8 WARP)
13. Ben Wallace, Orlando Magic/Detroit Pistons/Chicago Bulls/Cleveland Cavaliers/Pistons (112.7 WARP)
With apologies to Duncan and Garnett, the decade's best defender. Wallace was the best player on the lone championship team of the past three decades without a surefire Hall of Famer. Despite injuries, I put Wallace on my All-Defensive First Team last season at age 34, and he has demonstrated since returning to Detroit that he still has plenty left in the tank.

14. Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors/New Jersey Nets/Orlando Magic (110.0 WARP)
15. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers/Denver Nuggets/Detroit Pistons/Memphis Grizzlies/76ers (104.3 WARP)
I'm not as anti-Iverson as some statistical analysts, but WARP takes a rather dim view of his decade as a whole. In 1999-00, the season he earned a first-place vote for MVP, he finished with just 8.1 WARP. Iverson rates much better the following season, though not nearly at MVP level. His best seasons of the decade by WARP came in 2004-05 and 2005-06, when Iverson improved his efficiency and his playmaking for 76ers teams that were not as well constructed to succeed with defense and rebounding. Iverson is also hurt by putting up just 3.3 WARP the last two seasons; McGrady and Brand are the lone players in the top 25 who have been similarly ineffective in that span. (Also, I hope I'm not the only one amused that the Grizzlies will eternally have to be listed among Iverson's teams thanks to the two games he played in Memphis blue.)

16. Pau Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies/L.A. Lakers (102.4 WARP)
17. Ray Allen, Milwaukee Bucks/Seattle SuperSonics/Boston Celtics (99.0 WARP)
18. Andre Miller, Cleveland Cavaliers/L.A. Clippers/Denver Nuggets/Philadelphia 76ers/Portland Trail Blazers (96.0 WARP)
Surely the least heralded player in the top 25, Miller never even made an All-Star Game. He was robbed of that designation in 2001-02, when he was outstanding for a terrible Cleveland team (16.8 WARP), then settled in as an above-average point guard for the remainder of the decade.

19. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat (95.6 WARP)
20. Chauncey Billups, Minnesota Timberwolves/Detroit Pistons/Denver Nuggets (93.9 WARP)

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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The Decade's Best (12/29)
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On the Beat (12/31)

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