The NBA is all about stars, creating them, grooming them and keeping them from fading, as we'll be reminded constantly between now and Sunday. No other professional league relies so heavily on individuals in what's supposed to be a team sport. David Stern once compared NBA players to Disney characters, (Metta World Peace as Dopey, no doubt).
But the process of getting and developing stars is a complicated one, filled with false starts, dead ends and wasted money that only occasionally results in a sparkling, finished product ready to be mass marketed through shoe commercials. And even when a star is born and raised, he doesn't always stay loved and adored. LeBron James, anyone? Dwight Howard?
This weekend in Houston the league will celebrate the past, present and future for three days of All-Star pomp and excess. Until then, we'll try to do our part by listing the top 15 active players in each of three age groupings. That is, the best players 24 years and younger, those aged 25 to 30 and the best players 31 years and older. It's a fair way to compare these players to their true peers and see where they stand at respective points in their careers.
The good news for the NBA is the future seems to be in great shape. There's a young talent base that's expanding quickly and impressively, maybe at a rate never seen before. You know how good Ty Lawson, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Brandon Jennings and Kemba Walker are? Well, none made the 24 and under cut. Andre Iguodala was an Olympian last summer and he didn't make the 25 to 30 cut, neither did Rudy Gay and the two big Als, Jefferson and Horford, a two-time All-Star. Meanwhile, among the geezers, Kobe Bryant is still going strong at any age.
There was nothing scientific about this selection process, just observation mixed with the help of a few trusted veteran scouts. We judged the players on where they are right now, not on their reputations or how good they might be tomorrow. Feel free to applaud or complain, but take the time to school yourself on all the rankings.
NEW SCHOOL (24 and under)
15. DeMarcus Cousins (age 22). At some point, he'll get it. It might take five years and just as many head coaches before the light switch flips on for the NBA's biggest baby. Until then, the only maturity lies with skills you don't see often from players his size. After all, he leads his team in steals! OK, it's Sacramento, but still.
14. Kenneth Faried (23). He brings a coal miner's work habits and only knows one gear. It makes up for his woeful shooting and dribbling abilities. Manimal uses high energy to his advantage on the boards and defense where, pound for pound and inch for inch, he could be the NBA's best.
13. Serge Ibaka (23). Already a strong rebounder, shot-blocker and help defender, Ibaka is starting to refine a 15-foot jumper that this season has him almost five points over his career scoring average. Just don't expect OKC to suddenly start calling his number on every other play.
12. John Wall (22). His flaws are turnovers and a dreadful shooting range (22 percent on threes). Otherwise, while Wall may not be a franchise player, he's a franchise-type player, meaning the basics are there. You see how the Wizards woke up this season when he returned from injury and applied the smelling salts?
11. Jrue Holiday (22). He brings improved all-around backcourt skills (19 points, nine assists) that make him equipped for either guard spot. The growing pains were fierce at first, and last season was a hiccup, but now Holiday believes he belongs. No more gushing about him, though, until he's able to carry a team.
10. Brook Lopez (24). He's a once-clumsy big man who's starting to understand how to use his size for something other than scoring. All that separated him from All-Star level was the ability to rebound. Still not particularly tough, but nobody seven-foot and up has his feathery touch around the rim.
9. Steph Curry (24). Sharp and smart and knows what to do with the ball and when to do it. Most of the doubts about him are slowly being erased, with defense and physical strength still being works in progress. He's already one of the game's top shooters from anywhere, and that makes you forget how creative a passer he is at times.
8. Paul George (22). He's finally growing into the well-rounded, aggressive player Indiana expected to see right around now. A good shooter with range, fearless dunker and, as a small forward, already has a 17-rebound game in this, his breakout season. Needs to raise his basketball IQ, though.
7. Blake Griffin (23). There's no better athlete at 6-10 and ripped, and few have the hands and body control necessary to catch lob passes and dunk with authority from almost any angle and through any amount of traffic. Highlights galore. Defense is reliable. Jumper needs spit-shine.
6. Kevin Love (24). He's the most skilled power forward in the game whenever LeBron is playing another position. How many players, regardless of position, can win the three-point contest and rebounding title? Negative: hasn't shown any ability to make average teammates or lousy teams better.
5. Derrick Rose (24). Absolutely, this comes with an asterisk, having the 2011 MVP this low (or this high?) because of an injury technicality. We all know about the laser first-step, the pullup jumper, the slashing, the big-shot mentality. He's a handful on isolation plays. But until Rose demonstrates that he is Rose again, my hands are tied. Yours, too.
4. Kyrie Irving (20). He's 20. Say it slowly: twen-tee. That won't get you a drink in Utah. Other than LeBron, have you seen anyone this young making this kind of impact and impression all over the floor? And LeBron wasn't as polished then as Irving right now. New school player, old school game. Yet, his team can't win and he sometimes naps on defense.
3. James Harden (23). Gotta love how he took the max money and immediately became a franchise player who pretty much does it all offensively. Knows how to shoot it, pass it, rebound it, steal it and keep it in his left hand. He has two games of 35 points and 10 assists this season. He can sometimes pile up the turnovers, but LeBron recently gave a ringing endorsement -- and who are we to disagree?
2. Russell Westbrook (24). Don't let the nit-picking, legitimate as it is, blind you from the sheer talent and determination on both ends of the floor. He's a human tornado who never takes a game -- or a possession -- off. He can infuriate you and then leave you breathless, sometimes in the span of a minute. Only a healthy and normal Derrick Rose is more intimidating, along with …
1. Kevin Durant (24). The youngest to reach 10,000 points. Composed and cool, yet also fearless. A game changer, franchise maker and shake and baker who's lacking only a championship for complete credibility. Is he cutthroat enough to get one?
MIDDLE SCHOOL (25 to 30)
15. Deron Williams (28). Until recently, he was one of the league elite at point guard and made second-team All-NBA in 2010. It's been a parachute-free fall, though, since the Nets moved from Jersey to Brooklyn. He can still find the open man and is dangerous on the break, but 40-percent shooting and spotty defense doesn't lie. Amazing that he barely makes this list.
14. Joakim Noah (27). Typecast as a high-energy guy, code for "got no skills but works hard," Noah has taken steps lately to be more than a buzzsaw. His free throw shooting and 15-foot jumper, while still the ugliest-looking in the NBA, have improved to the point where the Bulls don't wince when lets it fly.
13. Josh Smith (27). At any time he can lead his team in scoring, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals … and mistakes. It's all part of the package for Smith, who can excite and infuriate. He probably should've made at least one All-Star team but one way or another his flaws, in the eyes of the coaches who select those teams, worked against him.
12. Andrew Bynum (25). The injury issue makes him a wild card here. He's only played a full season once. When healthy, he ranks higher. When limping, he doesn't make the cut. Give him the benefit of the doubt for now, because not many seven-footers gobble up the double-doubles at his rate when he suits up.
11. David Lee (29). Consistent, durable, reliable and mostly underappreciated. Can get 20 points and sometimes 20 rebounds. Reminds you of Chris Webber, without the swag. He doesn't defend anywhere near as well as he hits the glass, finds the open man and gets buckets from 15 feet in, however.
10. Luol Deng (27). Does a bit of everything without the flash or big numbers. He can help win games a number of ways, which makes it impossible for the Bulls to give him a long breather on the bench. You see how easily he slid into the No. 1 role with Derrick Rose out? That said, he's a strong but true No. 2 who's a bit overpaid.
9. Rajon Rondo (26). Very few players worked their way onto this list quite like Rondo, who'll likely attack rehab with the same tenacity and will. A true playmaker in every sense, he can win games without scoring, which is just as well, because he has the shooting range of a slingshot.
8. Chris Bosh (28). Maybe in a year or two, Bosh won't make the list at all. At the moment, though, he's an All-Star who could carry more weight and responsibility on a team without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He's the clear No. 3 on his team, with no chance of moving up, but Miami can't win a championship without him.
7. LaMarcus Aldridge (27). A double-double big man who gradually progressed from being soft to functional in the paint. His skills away from the basket are his strength and often his enemy. All told, he's a victim more of perception. Dependable from 18 feet and quick down the court, Aldridge fits in any offense.
6. Dwight Howard (27). Have you noticed how, even after back surgery and a torn labrum, Howard ranks high in rebounds and blocked shots and is second on the Lakers in scoring? He can still impact games defensively. If only he were healthy and could shoot free throws and wasn't so sensitive.
5. Tyson Chandler (30). You could make the case for Chandler being the top center in basketball, based on his defense, rebounding, intangibles and soft hands that make him an offensive factor near the basket. It took a while -- the championship year in Dallas changed everything -- but Chandler has finally arrived.
4. Tony Parker (30). In the midst of a terrific season, Parker is putting the final touches on his convincing argument for the Hall of Fame someday. At an age where even elite point guards tend to show wear, he remains lightning quick, almost automatic from 15 feet and brings the defense. Probe all you want, there are no serious weaknesses.
3. Carmelo Anthony (28). Sure, you can talk about his personal growth, his improved leadership skills, attention to defense and blah, blah. All good. Well, Melo is here because he can score like nobody else in basketball. Plain and simple.
2. Chris Paul (27). The best compliment about Paul? He makes teammates rich. You think he deserves a cut of DeAndre Jordan's millions? Maybe Blake Griffin's? How about Vinny Del Negro's? Paul inflates the importance of everyone around him. Best leader in the game.
1. LeBron James (28). The only four-time MVP remains frighteningly encased in his prime, capable of putting together that string of championships he promised when he landed on South Beach. After he wiped the sludge off his image, we see an entertainer and a winner, more admirers than haters. Best player on the planet.
OLD SCHOOL (31 and up)
15. Steve Nash (39). He can hit the open three-pointer and still find teammates, but age and bruises have caught up to Nash. His first step is a bit slower, he doesn't look to score as much and was never sharp defensively, even in his prime. That said, the fourth-oldest player in basketball remains a quality starting point guard and author of the pick and roll manual.
14. Jose Calderon (31). He's as efficient as it gets in terms of running an offense because he finds the open teammate, keeps turnovers to a minimum and tends to make open shots. But he rarely attacks the rim or plays tenacious defense. That lack of fire always kept Calderon from being among the best point guards.
13. Manu Ginobili (35). He's had games of 22 points and six steals and nine assists and can be quite effective in the clutch. But that's only when healthy, an ongoing issue for Ginobili, who's now producing at his lowest level since his rookie season.
12. Pau Gasol (32). He's falling faster than anyone on this list although that could be due to circumstances beyond his control, mainly coaching. Never tough or rugged or enough of a killer to satisfy Kobe Bryant, Gasol still has great touch and footwork, although now that he's injured, the Lakers might not see any of that until the playoffs -- that is, if they even make it that far without him.
11. Carlos Boozer (31). Famous for pulling disappearing acts and being too carefree in the past, Boozer is experiencing a bit of a renaissance here on the other side of 30. He's showing his value to the Bulls, although that won't stop the perception that he'll never be what you want him to be. He can get 16 and 10 a night -- but if you ask for more, he'll probably let you down.
10. Jamal Crawford (32). A solid sixth man whose game begins to show cracks when he's pressed into heavier duty. Owner of a killer crossover, he's the master of making shots that he has no business taking. Never bashful about taking the last shot, he can win or lose games spectacularly.
9. David West (32). His game is below the rim but his stock remains high, especially this season, one of his best. Few players know their strengths and limitations better. Smart and also aggressive, West relies on a 15-foot jumper to carry him through the final phase of his career and atone for a lack of quickness and hops.
8. Dirk Nowitzki (34). Maybe if he wasn't coming back from injury he'd be ranked higher -- and so would the Mavericks. Unless he's subconsciously saving some for next season, or simply needs more time to round into form, Dirk appears to have fallen from the ranks of the league elite. The good news is shooters are always the last to go, so he'll stick around a while longer.
7. Paul Pierce (35). A master of consistency, even now, Pierce will find a way. He's a big-moments guy who wants the ball and the opportunity to break the other guy's heart. The bad games are starting to multiply, but Pierce always believes the next game will fix that. More often than not, he's right.
6. Kevin Garnett (36). He's not as productive as he was in Minnesota but, all things considered, his value soared since joining the Celtics five years ago. The only player with 25,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists, 1,500 steals and 1,500 blocks, KG stays in shape and is frisky and productive, unlike most old folks. But like most old folks, KG is also perpetually cranky.
5. Joe Johnson (31). He makes too much money, a problem we'd all love to have. If he didn't, the perception of Johnson would be more favorable. He still falls in love with the dribble and suffers the 4-for-16 shooting night on occasion, but Johnson demands attention late in the fourth quarter and is happy to guard the other team's best player.
4. Tim Duncan (36). After last season when he tended to flame out and flirted with an accelerated aging process, Duncan is making it look like 2007 again. His scoring and rebounding are up as he paces his way toward the playoffs and tries to avoid nagging injuries that could follow him into spring.
3. Zach Randolph (31). Most players with his history of off-court issues wouldn't make it this long, and yet Z-Bo is a Memphis favorite and, once again, an All-Star. He's still among the game's best rebounders and low-post scorers, although he rarely requires a double team or beats you by himself.
2. Dwyane Wade (31). At some point, the injuries will swallow him up -- but not now. He'll get serious mention for All-NBA second team, even though he's officially a sidekick here in his "twilight." His all-around game remains on a higher level than most, but opposing guards don't shiver as much as before.
1. Kobe Bryant (34). Deadly and determined, Kobe is the Peter Pan of the NBA, someone who refuses to look his age. No player in his 17th season has ever averaged 25 points. His ego won't allow him to drift into mediocrity or settle for second-best, even though he might be third-best overall behind Durant and LeBron. He lost some lift on his legs and will lapse defensively, but again, he's Kobe. Even after all these years.