The NBA’s Top 10 Showstoppers, Led By The Guy With The Nastiest Handle In The League: Kyrie Irving

Whether you have access to League Pass or can only watch the games on cable TV, there are always a few players that you plan your schedule around. In this era of on-demand viewing, to be an appointment-viewing player may be the ultimate compliment. These 10 fit that bill as the ultimate NBA showstoppers.

*** *** ***

Led by Mike Woodson persuading Carmelo to play the four spot this season while remaking the team’s offense in the mold of his best player, the Knicks were a Broadway success. ‘Melo’s league-leading per-game average of nearly 29 points hasn’t been because of a personal transformation; he’s still the jump shot-shooting savant with the step-back and step-through up his sleeve. That grew old in Denver and stagnant last season in New York. However, this season, Anthony opened excitement because now he forces an opponent’s hand by choosing whether a big man or smaller wing will check him. That, in turn, can make for awkward defensive strategies that open the floor for everyone else — or, just ‘Melo. One of our favorite memories was watching Orlando stick — almost as if on a dare — Josh McRoberts on him for nearly an entire fourth quarter in January. With glee, Anthony finished with 40 points.

It’s an absolute shame that Cowbell Kingdom has become a wasteland of bad decisions on and off the court just a decade after Vlade, C-Webb, White Chocolate and Adelman made the Kings the best show in the whole league. But while we don’t blame Sacramento fans for staying away from the evening news’ latest report on the team, there’s no excuse for not watching DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins get 17.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. That’s not the whole truth, though. His fuse is as short as his talent is limitless. Whenever the Kings are on, it’s hard to know if he’ll blow up in a good or bad way. Whatever happens, he usually leaves you shaking your head.

The Lakers are a doomed ship — if they’re not sinking there’s no sign of wind hitting their sails. Ah, but Kobe isn’t going down like this. Before his season-ending injury, he played with the mantra that even if this team is almost unbearable to watch at times, he was not going to be the player critics point at for its failures. Just ask Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace, whom he split open with a dunk in early February that evoked memories of Kobe with his mini-fro. Or the Jazz, Thunder, Hornets and Suns, whom Bryant collectively rang up 48 assists against in a four-game streak. Seventeen seasons into his career, Bryant’s game is still evolving.

He’s stronger than you, he’s bouncier than you and he knows you only bought the ticket or switched the channel to the Clippers game because you want to see him dunk. There’s good reason to tune in often when he’s playing alongside a healthy Chris Paul, because he’s more capable than ever of dunking at any time before next to the “point God.”

Among this new breed of point guard that’s more likely to score on you than find the open man, Russ is literally leaps and bounds ahead. But you already know about his dunking. What’s been hilarious to see and harder to turn away from is his embrace of the villain role. Westbrook wears the black hat better than any other player in the league — even Kobe. Watch as he glares into the road crowds after buckets, or revisit his scene stealing in Denver from January when he stole the midcourt shot — twice! — from the Nuggets mascot. No one gets between Denver’s home crowd and the promise of free pizza. Except Russ, who busted Denver’s chops and then hit a three-pointer to nearly steal a win. We couldn’t turn away.

With LeBron giving every doubter the middle finger with his NBA title, Olympic gold medal and NBA MVP last season, Harden entered this year as the player with the most to prove. And that was before he was dealt on the season’s eve to Houston. As a result he plays angry — he dunked so hard on Utah in a game near the end of the regular season it almost ripped the rim from its bolts. No one plays perfectly and Harden isn’t the exception, with his goal of proving he’s a league-leading scorer manifesting itself into a high usage rate and maybe too many one-on-one battles. The NBA, however, has always been maligned as a league where too many stars coast — an assertion you can never tag on Harden’s relentless approach.

Golden State has long been the NBA’s funhouse distortion mirror. Players go there and use the Warriors’ bizarro pace and style of play to put up numbers that don’t resemble anything they’d do almost anywhere else. Kevin Durant and, nearly, Steve Nash finished with the hallowed 50/40/90 percentage seasons from the field, three and free throw line but Curry might still be the NBA’s purest shooter. The team’s three-point percentage jumps by five percentage points, and eight more points are scored when he plays. A number of young guards could have taken this spot — Rajon Rondo‘s injured knee left him off, while Jrue Holiday and Paul George‘s sample sizes of excellence need to increase a bit — but Curry’s output is historic. Only two other guards in NBA history have averaged at least 20.0 points and 6.5 assists while shooting 44 percent from deep. He’ll pull from anywhere, and it makes the always fun Warriors looking like a legitimate playoff threat for years to come. As long as Curry continues to throw up 20-point quarters in the playoffs, we can’t be mad.

LeBron James has done everything he ever could have dreamt of achieving. Naturally, he turned in possibly his best statistical season as his encore to last year’s title. Per game, James had the fewest turnovers, most rebounds, best field goal shooting and best three-point shooting of his career. There have only been 14 other seasons in NBA history to include averages of at least 27.0 points, 6.9 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game (done by six players, four times by ‘Bron… although he fell just short this year). But none can match his 56 percent shooting so far this season. Maybe the guy who comes up with the solution of peace in the Middle East can figure out afterward how to stop LeBron James in his prime.

Don’t believe the “KD is not nice” tagline Nike is pushing on us: KD is nice to watch go to work. Durant may have the most limitless range in the entire Association, a perk of being 6-10 with moves that seem more limitless than teammate Russell Westbrook’s wardrobe combinations. That we all know this and have marveled at his offensive highlights since he was 18 makes his young mastery even more impressive. No player has more points in the game’s last five minutes when ahead or behind by five points (Kyrie Irving is second), and no one has more points per fourth quarter, period. Unlike a majority of this list, it’s hard to turn away from him when he’s on defense, too. Coach Scott Brooks allows Durant to guard four positions and KD has embraced the challenge. Getting beat isn’t a death knell because of his wingspan and his ability to swat from behind. You could turn away from KD. But why would you?

Irving isn’t simply the best among his second-year peers, he’s the most exciting player in the NBA. This development wasn’t even on our radar before the season began, but we’re not all that surprised it’s happened, either. The potential was there even if he was never expected to mature this quickly — for a while there, only LeBron James and Kevin Durant ever averaged Irving’s 24.0 points per game at age 20 in NBA history. (Injuries would eventually take their toll and Uncle Drew finished at 22.5 points a night.) Irving’s mix of foot speed is matched by hand skills that would make a pickpocket envious. The whole package is wrapped in a scary confidence that often leads to highlights rather than mistakes born from hubris. For players who are this young, it’s usually the opposite way around, but this former No. 1 pick has made game-winning plays his specialty. His game-winning three against Toronto in late January was topped just a week later by his 13-point run in the final four minutes to stun Oklahoma City at home. Sometimes it looks like he’s bringing the plotline of his Uncle Drew ads — young player dressed in old makeup makes playground opponents look foolish — to life in the NBA.

Are there any players in the NBA that force you to stop what you’re doing and watch?

Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.