BOSTON – The NBA has seen its share of early-season injuries, some resulting in guys out for the season (Gordon Hayward) while others missing just a couple games (Al Horford out two games with a concussion).
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And then there’s Kyrie Irving, who suffered a facial fracture that kept him for one game. He was supposed to wear a plastic protective mask for a couple weeks. Instead, it lasted one game and part of another before Irving decided to ditch it.
Kyrie’s mask got me to thinking … who are the best masked men in the NBA?
Today's Starting Five will include the top 5 masked men in the annals of NBA history, in addition to the top 5 teams, MVP candidates, rookies and defenders:
TOP 5 MASKED MEN
1. Rip Hamilton, Detroit – Worn initially for protection, his mask became an iconic look for the three-time All-star.
2. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers – Mask worn in 2012, the last year Bryant appeared in the playoffs.
3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – He looked and played like a superhero in his first game with a mask in 2015, tallying 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Philly.
4. LeBron James – Ever the fashion-forward one, James wore a black, carbon-fiber mask to protect his broken nose in 2014.
5. Kyrie Irving - He played with a mask for 19 games in 2013, averaging 24.5 points and 47.5 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from 3-point range.
TOP 5 MVP CANDIDATES
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – The addition of Eric Bledsoe has helped rack up some wins, strengthen Antetokounmpo’s chances atop the MVP leaderboard.
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State – Shooting better than 50 percent from the field, Durant has stepped his passing game (career-high 5.0 assists now) up this season while continuing to pile up the wins.
3. James Harden, Houston – Not having Chris Paul around most of this season and still winning, is a reminder of how Harden has played at a consistently high level against all comers.
4. LeBron James, Cleveland – Three straight wins and the Cavs are well on their way to getting back into the thick of things, with LeBron leading the way.
5. Al Horford, Boston – In his last three games, he’s shooting 76.6 percent and has been a central figure in Boston’s rise to the top of the NBA standings.
TOP 5 ROOKIES
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia - He has eight double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles to his credit this season. He’s the rookie everyone is chasing now.
2. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas - You have to watch this guy play. Would be getting a lot more pub if the Mavs had a better record.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston - Had a rough start against the Warriors, but bounced back and made key plays down the stretch helping Boston get the win.
4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers - The late first-round pick has been an absolute Godsend to the Lakers, able to contribute in a multiple of ways.
5. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers - He has been up and down like most rookies. But his court vision alone will keep him on the floor for many years to come.
TOP 5 DEFENDERS
1. Al Horford, Boston - He’s the best defender on the NBA’s best team defensively. It makes sense for Horford to be the pace-setter in this category.
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah - A towering presence, this 7-foot-2 big man will once again be a top-3 finisher when it comes to the league’s highest defensive honor.
3. Draymond Green, Golden State - The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Green is the rare player who can defend all five positions at a fairly high level.
4. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City - His ability to defend guards as well as switch out defensively is a huge plus to the Thunder.
5. Aron Baynes, Boston - You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who utilizes the NBA’s rule of verticality better than Baynes.
TOP 5 TEAMS
1. Boston – Winning 14 games, that’s one thing. But to beat Golden State along the journey? That’s special.
2. Golden State – Loss to Boston be damned, the Warriors are still the team everyone emulates … even now.
3. Houston – Can score with the best of them, but until they defend at a high level their success will remain limited primarily to the regular season.
4. Minnesota – It’s still early, but it’s hard to imagine the Timberwolves going anywhere but up the Western Conference standings.
5. Detroit – Outside of Boston, there may not be a bigger surprise in the NBA thus far than Detroit.