The NBA has been changing lately and the current all-star game rosters are evidence of this fact. Aging stars like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett have been replaced by a new crop of young stars. The best way to examine this "changing of the guard" is to take a look at the lowest salaries of this year's all-star selections. These are the younger players still playing with their rookie contracts who are leading the transformation of the league.
Gone are the days of coming down the court and dumping the ball into the post to the big seven footer. The new players are dynamic, athletic and predominantly point guards. The league is playing small ball and only one seven footer, Roy Hibbert, is on this list of newcomers. The championship won by the Miami Heat, playing without a true starting center, has created a new formula for success that many other teams seem to be following. Good big men are hard to find, so more emphasis has been placed on drafting point guards who can distribute the ball as well as score.
Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, and John Wall, all make considerably less than Kobe Bryant's $30 million plus per year, but they are the newer all-stars who are changing the face of the NBA. It might be no surprise that the Indiana Pacers have raced out to the second best record in the NBA at 40-12. They just happen to have two all-stars on this list.
10 Roy Hibbert (Indiana Pacers) - $14,283,844
Roy Hibbert joins Dwight Howard as one of the top true centers in the NBA today. Sure the league currently has a void of quality big men compared to the days of Shaq, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, The Admiral and Kareem, but Roy is young and seems to improve each year. His numbers are not exactly eye-popping this year, 11.8 points per game, 7.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, but he is young and has a solid 7'2", 290 lb body.
Paul George has certainly been a major driving force behind the Pacers on their quest for a title this season, but don't discount the defense and quality play in the middle that Roy Hibbert brings to the table. Unlike most of the NBA's recent big men who have been known to play good defense, Roy can even knock down over 75% of his free throws. He is far from a dominating force on offense, but he is not to be confused with Ben Wallace and might eventually have more to his game than fellow Georgetown alum, Dikembe Mutombo.
9 James Harden (Houston Rockets) - $13,701,250
Despite playing in only his second season with Houston, James Harden has come on as one of the bright stars in the NBA today. A driving force who has the ability to get to the free throw line (792 times last year) and even manage to make his attempts (86% this year), Harden appears to have elements of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in his game. He boasts a respectable 23.9 points per game scoring average and manages to add 5.3 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game into the mix, but his lack of being able to play both ends of the court, keeps him from measuring up to the greatness of Kobe and MJ.
Harden averages 1.4 steals per game, but offers very little resistance when he gets beat off the dribble. He also has too many turnovers, 3.7 turnovers per game, and has trouble shooting from the outside, 32.9% 3-point shooting this season, but he is still young and can work on these deficiencies. Harden must improve on the defensive end and his outside shot if he wants to lead Houston anywhere beyond the first round of the NBA playoffs.
8 Tony Parker (San Antonio Spurs) - $12,500,000
Tony Parker seems to fly under the radar in San Antonio, and yet he has been one of the premier players in the NBA for quite some time. His 17.7 points per game, 6.2 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game, are far from remarkable, but his 50.1% field goal percentage and low 2.4 turnovers per game average (for a point guard), provide more insight into his importance. He is a coach on the court, a capable defender and can still score when his team needs those critical points.
Throughout his career, Parker has probably sacrificed better numbers and even more money for the wins and betterment of the team. Known for his teardrop layups and body control drives in the lane, Parker has always been able to get his shot off and has been known to drain critical three pointers. Despite his age, San Antonio fans probably, and should, still consider him a bargain.
7 Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors)- $9,887,642
Stephen Curry already has earned his designation as one the NBA's best pure shooters. If his 24.6 points per game average isn't ample evidence of his offensive prowess, a career 43.9% average from 3-point range and 89.3% average from the foul line, certainly lend some solid support. However, what has really stood out this season is Curry's remarkable 9.0 assists per game average. The shooter has taken on the responsibility of making sure his teammates are getting open looks at the basket as well.
Curry is out to prove that he can do more than shoot this season. Add in his 4.4 rebounds per game and 1.7 steals per game and Curry appears to have succeeded in making a case for his all-around game. Reggie Miller is often mentioned when Curry's name comes up, but Stephen's numbers at this stage of the season top or tie all of Reggie's personal bests. Five years into his career, the 6'3" shooter can now pass and rebound with the best.
6 DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors) - $9,500,000
This highly acrobatic athlete has always been a pleasure to watch in the open court, but his game has evolved to include averages of 3.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game (both career bests). DeMar DeRozan can score with drives through the lane and his shot, that he has been developing as evidenced by his 22.4 points per game average, but its still his athleticism in the open court that is the hallmark of his game.
In order to take the next step, DeMar needs to improve his defense and develop a 3-point shot. He currently hits only 31.8% of his 3-point attempts and that is an improvement from last year (28.3%). DeMar is still young and working hard to improve his overall game, and with more all-star games in his future, $9.5 million is not a bad price to pay for his services.
5 John Wall (Washington Wizards) - $7,459,925
John Wall certainly showed the world that he could soar through the air in the slam dunk contest, but his numbers this season stand as proof that he can do things on the ground as well. Wall has averaged 19.8 points per game this season, while also tallying 8.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. A fabulous athlete, the former Kentucky star is finally coming into his own as a star in this league after showing plenty of potential his first few years. Wall has worked on his 3-point shot this year, sinking 62 of them so far this season, and his 2.0 steals per game show he has worked hard on defense as well.
Wall is young and still has time to develop his outside shot, but his continued improvement will certainly land him in more all-star games. The Wizards should make the playoffs in the less than stout Eastern Conference, but Washington will have to add more parts to the puzzle to get even more out of Wall's game. At $7.5 million, Wall is a diamond in the rough and a good foundation for Washington to build around.
4 Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers) - $5,607,240
Kyrie Irving is only in his third season in the NBA, but some of his numbers speak volumes about his game and potential. Sure his 21.5 points and 6.2 assists per game are solid numbers for any point guard in the league, but what makes him special are some of his other numbers. Kyrie is not shooting his best this season, but still has a 38.5% career average from behind the 3-point arc. His ability to shoot the ball is also supported by a career average from the foul line of 86%.
Kyrie is a tremendous athlete with an all-around game that keeps improving. A great measure of his growth is evidenced by his assist to turnover ratio that jumped from a pedestrian 1.83 last year to a much improved 2.34 so far this year. He has become a leader for this Cavaliers team and his $5.6 million salary can be enjoyed for now, but even if the Cavaliers fail to improve, more all-star game appearances, stardom and a significant pay raise will all be in Kyrie's future
3 Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans) - $5,375,760
An incredible athlete with a 6'10" frame, Anthony Davis has experienced his share of highlights in his brief NBA career. Davis entered the league amid questions about his offensive game and ability to score points against the talent in the NBA. This season he has responded by averaging 20.5 points per game to go along with 10.1 rebounds and an astounding 3.1 blocked shots per game. Following his experience with Team USA, the London Olympics, and his first all-star game appearance, Davis has proven he can compete with the elite players in the NBA.
As the first player selected in the 2012 draft by the Pelicans, Davis has not disappointed. His experience on Team USA was probably invaluable towards helping him know that he belongs, and the learning curve seems to have been shortened in the process. The blocks and the defense were expected, but with over 20 points per game for the 6'10" gazelle who can run the court like a point guard, the Pelicans have themselves quite a bargain.
2 Paul George (Indiana Pacers) - $3,282,003
Paul George has quickly become one of the top players in the league, as well as one of the best players in the league that many fans have yet to see play. George is averaging 22.2 points, 3.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game, but his defense and competitive nature have created quite a following for him in America's heartland. George has improved offensively each season he has been in the league, and still seems to be getting better as the current season progresses, having many wonder if this will be the year for Indiana.
At 6'9", 220 lbs, George might be just the type of player who can get under Lebron's skin, but the Pacers already know they will need more than George to defeat the Heat. George has become more efficient this year, improving on his field goal, free throw and 3-point shooting percentages from last year. The Pacers might be on a mission this year, but one thing they don't have to prove to the world is what a bargain they have in Paul George.
1 Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers) - $3,202,920
Damian Lillard burst upon the scene last year, averaging 19.0 points per game to go along with 6.5 assists per game. This year has been no different as Lillard has again flourished, leading Portland to a 36-17 record at the break. He has the numbers, 20.7 points, 5.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game, this season to justify his all-star selection, and has earned the distinction of being one of the hardest players in the NBA to defend. He is even shooting over 40% from the 3-point line and hits his free throws at an impressive 88.4% clip, making him even more unstoppable.
The sky's the limit with Lillard, and the Trail Blazers are certainly fortunate to have Damian playing for $3.2 million. Lilard can continue to improve and so can the Blazers. As Lilard's outside shot continues to improve, he will be even more dangerous and his value will only follow suit. The second-year Weber State player's performance might be somewhat unexpected, which has contributed to him being the most undervalued all-star on the list, but Portland fans have become accustomed to expect the unexpected when it comes to Lilard's play.