by Ben Osborne / @bosborne17

We have our default subhead for the SLAMonline Top 50—the suddenly slightly controversial phrase “definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players”—but if I was left to write my own for this piece, it would be: “The perfect ranking at an imperfect time.”

By “perfect,” I mean, No. 1. You can’t be higher than 1, right? So by this standard, LeBron James has the perfect ranking. And in so many ways, he deserves it. I feel like I elucidated all the reasons LeBron is the best player in the game really well a year ago, and as far as skill set, durability and regular-season mindset, nothing’s changed. LeBron is still a physical freak of nature. He can still score 40 points just about any time out. He still has the vision and unselfishness to drop double-digit assists any time out. He can still hit threes, he can still embarrass opponents with violent dunks.

Sticking with what we saw in last year’s regular season (and pretty much the entire Playoffs until the Finals), LeBron still has swagger and can still be a team leader. I have a hard time believing a single GM in the League, if told they could have any one player on their team for this upcoming season, would take anyone other than LeBron James. Ergo, he got my No. 1 pick for this ranking, and enough other No. 1 votes, to easily finish first. And, if LeBron’s Twitter can be believed, there’s actually reason to expect the King to be even better this season: A legitimate post-up game, which has been the biggest hole in his offensive arsenal.

I frankly think it’s awesome that a 6-8, 250-pound player has spent almost his entire career on the perimeter—that’s what makes him so unique. But all great players need to diversify their games, and LeBron has done way too little of that so far in his career—if, this season, he can reliably go in the post and be a near-lock to either finish at the rim, hit a cutter for a bucket or draw a shooting foul, he will be that much more unstoppable. So there, in concise fashion, I have laid out my reasons for why LeBron deserves the perfect ranking.

Now, even while conceding that LeBron is one of my favorite players in the League and that I absolutely hope he wins multiple rings in his career, I will get to the imperfect portion of this write-up. First and foremost is last season’s NBA Finals. At about 11 p.m. on June 2, LeBron and the Heat were up 88-73 on the Mavericks with little more than seven minutes remaining in Game 2. Miami was on the verge of 2-0 series lead, and honestly, this thing had the makings of a sweep.

I was out watching the game with my man Tzvi, and we were sending tweets about the game looking like a layup line for the Heat. I remind you guys of how the series started so you remember that it wasn’t like it was a failure for LeBron from the jump. Even if Dwyane Wade (who LeBron had largely carried in the EC Finals) was better than Bron through two games or even an entire series and won the MVP award, people would not have had much bad to say about LeBron as a world champion.

Instead, the Mavs gutted out a historic comeback win and changed the entire tenor of the series. Once it changed, and the Heat started to be the ones with their backs to the wall, LeBron shrunk. No two ways about it. As this piece, which was tweeted to me this morning (did the writer know what I was working on today??) points out, over the six-game, 4-2 series loss, LeBron (lack of caps and styling his, not mine):

- was the leading scorer in exactly zero of them.

- scored 107 points, which was the third most on his team, and the fifth most of anyone in the series. but he also played the most minutes of anyone by far (262), a whole quarter and a half more than dirk, and almost two and a half quarters more than Wade. That works out to 19.6 points per 48 minutes. The NBA average this season for all qualifying players was 20.2 points per 48 minutes.

- was fourth on his team in free-throw attempts in the series, behind Wade, Bosh and Mario Chalmers.

- averaged exactly 3 points per game in the fourth quarter.

Honestly, I can’t defend any of that. It was confusing and frustrating. And LeBron certainly hasn’t explained it yet (don’t think I haven’t asked for an interview on SLAM’s behalf!). About the only thing that can be said, in short, is: He had the worst Finals possible for the “best player in the game.” He shrunk from the moment and let his coaches, fans and teammates down. But that doesn’t make his career a failure. As Tom Haberstroh eloquently pointed out last week, LeBron is 26 years old. Twenty-six! He could be the top-ranked player for five, six, maybe seven more seasons. In many ways (such as Playoff wins), he’s had considerably more success than the G.O.A.T., Michael Jordan, had at this age.

None of this excuses what a bad 2011 Finals LeBron had (or even the 2010 Playoff flame-out vs Boston), but it should halt those that think the guy’s career epitaph should already be written. LeBron James has a lot of career left.

The other thing that makes this an imperfect time to place LeBron No. 1 is a little out of his hands. Obviously the lockout puts a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, and even if it’s the owners fault in so many ways, the high-profile players earn much of the fans’ scorn. And, considering LeBron’s entirely legal and selfless (if horribly executed) Decision to move from the Cavs to the Heat has been twisted around to show how the owners have been wronged, LeBron seems to be getting an extra brunt of anger about the lockout.

So, while I wish that the piece that caps off almost six weeks of passionate writing and commenting could be an outright celebration, circumstances dictate that this one get an asterisk. Perhaps like the title the game’s best player will win this year?

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13
37Kevin GarnettCelticsPF12
36Eric GordonClippersSG7
35Tony ParkerSpursPG10
34Andre Iguodala76ersSG6
33Al JeffersonJazzPF11
32Al HorfordHawksC2
31Stephen CurryWarriorsPG9
30Tim DuncanSpursPF10
29Josh SmithHawksPF9
28Manu GinobiliSpursSG5
27Tyreke EvansKingsPG8
26Rudy GayGrizzliesSF6
25John WallWizardsPG7
24Danny GrangerPacersSF5
23Monta EllisWarriorsSG4
22Joe JohnsonHawksSG3
21Paul PierceCelticsSF4
20Steve NashSunsPG6
19Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF8
18LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF7
17Chris BoshHeatPF6
16Kevin LoveTWolvesPF5
15Rajon RondoCelticsPG5
14Blake GriffinClippersPF4
13Pau GasolLakersPF3
12Russell WestbrookThunderPG4
11Amar’e StoudemireKnicksPF2
10Deron WilliamsNetsPG3
9Carmelo AnthonyKnicksSF3
8Chris PaulHornetsPG2
7Dirk NowitzkiMavsPF1
6Dwight HowardMagicC1
5Dwyane WadeHeatSG2
4Derrick RoseBullsPG1
3Kobe BryantLakersSG1
2Kevin DurantThunderSF2
1LeBron JamesHeatSF1

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.