Thoughts on Guards + NBA Backcourt Rankings

For much of my life my stance on guards was that they were a necessary evil. For a big man they struck me as selfish, short-sighted showboats. Much of their movements seemed superfluous, and they were hesitant to throw it in to the post even when there was a mouse in the house. I could see their mind turning as they saw me with great low block position and a beckoning arm raised for the ball, always judging, thinking, “What if I never get the ball back?”. It baffled me that they lacked confidence in my ability to pull a fundamental spin move, ball fake, switch hands and kiss it off the glass for two. But, alas, someone needs to bring the ball up the court – I know damn well I’m panicking and getting stole on when that half court trap comes at me.

So it became necessary to build an uneasy alliance with one or two guards who seemed to see the light, who realized that a center isn’t a black hole (except for Al Jefferson), and that a skilled big man with court vision can draw a double team and kick it back out to the original passer or another shooter behind the arc, or find a slashing forward for an easy bucket. It’s not that point guards are inherently selfish – though some are –  it’s that they’re control freaks, with maybe a dose of Napoleon syndrome. As a big man you have to at least feign understanding with these tiny dribble machines for the offense to function properly and the team to ultimately succeed. It’s a constant tug of war. One my favorite books is Pat Conroy’s “My Losing Season”, in which the diminutive Conroy’s coach, talking to the author years after their Citadel days, tells him: “I always hated guards”, to explain away why he was always suck a jerk to him. As I read that, I reflected on many years of being ignored in the post and then berated for not offensive rebounding a contested brick, and a satisfied smile began to curl. What wisdom in those words.

With all that said, I’ve softened my stance on the guard positions as I’ve gotten older, maybe because I don’t get to play as much anymore to witness their treachery in action. You simply can’t deny the level of skill and artistry which the NBA’s best guards display on a nightly basis. In recent years the traditional center position has been de-emphasized yet I crave the NBA more now than I did as a kid. Credit where credit’s due, and as Stephen Curry showcased last season, the point guard position in particular is crucially important in today’s game. And what it means to be a top point guard has changed: not only must they be the court general that drops hot dimes and penetrates a defense, a sweet stroke from three-point range is now almost a prerequisite. A guy like Curry opens up the floor for his bigger teammates since you can’t leave him open at any time. Done right, it’s sublime.

There’s also something to be said for a great partnership between backcourt mates. It can take many forms, such as Klay Thompson checking a bigger, scoring point guard for the small Curry so he can conserve energy for the offensive end; or a Kyle Korver/JJ Redick specializing in catch-and-shoot and bending a defense by moving without the ball while their respective point partner Jeff Teague and Chris Paul run the show and get them the ball at the right spot. Like any partnership it can take time, and it can backfire. The initial promise can disappear when egos, unclear roles and overall team chemistry come into play and sends backcourt mates into feuds. In the best cases you have classic male bonding. The worst case? Well, you remember Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton exorcising their 2nd Amendment right in the Wizards locker room, right?

Without further ado, I present my current NBA Backcourt Rankings, with some color commentary on each tandem. Point guard is listed first, then shooting guard. One note: though the key criteria for ranking is total starting backcourt play, I will elevate a backcourt if one of the two is a superstar, regardless of how bad his backcourt mate may be. Case in point: I’m taking Russ Westbrook (awesome) and Dion Waiters (decidedly not awesome) every day of the week over two solid guards like George Hill and Monta Ellis in Indiana. Combined PER is from the 2014-15 season.

Low on Talent and/or Experience

30. Emmanuel Mudiay & Randy Foye (Denver Nuggets). Combined PER: N/A. I was in Denver last weekend, and excitement for the Nuggets hasn’t been this low since the pre-Melo days. I like Mudiay and think he will be good, but this year will be tough with a thin roster and a lot being asked of him. As for Foye, I was surprised he is still in the league, let alone starting. Gary Harris may take his job.

29. Tony Wroten & Robert Covington (Philadelphia 76ers). Combined PER: 29.6. Wroten was a great fantasy sleeper if you were punting on turnovers, prior to his injury. He’s erratic and too eager to look for his own shot. Covington is a solid player, whose best role would be coming off the bench for a contender. In Philly he’s their top perimeter player.

28. Jarrett Jack & Wayne Ellington (Brooklyn Nets). Combined PER: 26.2. I don’t have anything to really say here except Jack and Ellington are both fine role players off the bench. But they should not be a starting backcourt in the NBA. Joe Johnson will get some time at the 2, which would push this pairing up further.

27. Jose Calderon & Aaron Afflalo (New York Knicks). Combined PER: 19.5. Knicks fans should probably just watch old tapes of Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe to stay sane this season. Calderon has been a solid pro, but will be 34 this season and doesn’t have much upside. Kendrick Lamar “used to be jealous of Aaron Afflalo”, but my guess is the script has flipped on that one.

26. Trey Burke & Alec Burks (Utah Jazz). Combined PER: 25.6. Great alliterative backcourt, but the greatness stops there. While my fellow Colorado alum Burks can score and is worthy of a starting 2 spot, his ceiling is low. It’s really a shame that Dante Exum went down with a knee injury, as this would have been a valuable growth year for him with a talented front court to play with. Burke just hasn’t shown the same magic he had as a Michigan Wolverine. He could get benched if he shoots them out of games.

Potential Disasters

25. Ricky Rubio & Kevin Martin (Minnesota Timberwolves). Combined PER: 31.9. All that Rubio hype never really panned out, did it? It turns out you need to be able to shoot and score in the lane nowadays as a PG. You can get by if you do one or the other really well. Rubio does neither. The journeyman Martin brings some stability to the position and should put up stats on a bad team. He won’t make them better, however.

24. Rajon Rondo & Ben McLemore (Sacramento Kings). Combined PER: 22.8. Everything with the Kings is a potential disaster, which is why it’s a precarious spot for Rondo to land. He has a chance to rebuild his reputation here and earn a big payday next summer when the cap jumps up, but his glory days are farther and farther behind him. Rondo plus Demarcus Cousins plus George Karl likely equals turmoil. It should be captivating to watch. McLemore may be a diamond in the rough – we’ll see how much better he gets with more playing time this year.

23. Jrue Holiday & Eric Gordon (New Orleans Pelicans). Combined PER: 31.5. I can’t overstate how much the Pels need Holiday healthy for a full season, to take some pressure off the Brow and prevent slipping into becoming the Tyreke Evans Show. His injury history doesn’t leave much room for optimism. Gordon’s own injury-plagued career can only be called a disappointment.

22. Reggie Jackson & Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Detroit Pistons). Combined PER:  31. When Jackson left OKC for Detroit last season he found more opportunity and his numbers jumped to 17.6 points and 9 assists per game. Though capable of scoring he’s wildly inconsistent and committed 3.5 turnovers per game for Detroit last year. KCP is a solid scorer who won’t keep opponents’ coaches up at night.

21. Damian Lillard & Gerald Henderson (Portland Trail Blazers). Combined PER: 33.9. What a bittersweet time for Dame. On one hand, the Blazers handed him the keys to the team’s future to tune of a 5 year, $120M extension. Yet, he’s the last man standing in the starting five from a team that won 51 games and looked superb at times last year. He’s got to make some kind of effort to improve defensively. Henderson is an efficient shooter, though his PPG dropped last season in Charlotte.

20. Deron Williams & Wesley Matthews (Dallas Mavericks). Combined PER: 31.8. On paper this looks great. Williams has looked good on paper for years, though, just not on the basketball court. He’s back in his hometown now and should be motivated to prove doubters wrong, but that ship may have sailed. Matthews is one of the top 2 guards in the league but the torn Achilles puts his ongoing value and effectiveness in question. Especially this season, I’m not expecting big things.

My Interest is Piqued

19. Kemba Walker & Nic Batum (Charlotte Hornets). Combined PER: 30.7. Batum is a good addition in Charlotte assuming he’s completely healthy after a frustrating down season for him last year. He’ll provide help on perimeter defense and is a great passer and rebounder at the 2 spot. Walker is the star of this team and is an exciting scorer. His ability to win as a team’s best player at the NBA level is questionable.

18. D’Angelo Russell & Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers). Combined PER: N/A. This pairing should make for good theater if not a lot of wins. I’m buying Russell stock and think he will win Rookie of the Year. He’s also already making waves by doing impressions of Kobe and sharing good-natured jabs with his backcourt mate on Twitter. Russell’s growth as a player could either be helped or hampered by Bryant, depending on what Mamba shows up this season.

17. Marcus Smart & Avery Bradley (Boston Celtics). Combined PER: 22.5. Opposing guards will dread playing the Celtics this year. The Smart-Bradley tandem is physical, hard-nosed and quick to pick pockets. They should get better as they play more together, but Smart needs to improve his efficiency while putting the ball in the basket more often.

16. Elfrid Payton & Victor Oladipo (Orlando Magic). Combined PER: 29.7. Perhaps the two most important cogs in the young Magic’s engine. Payton showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie and should be more consistent in Year 2. Oladipo is the one player on this team with star potential in 2015-16. These two are just getting started and hopefully will share a backcourt for many years.

15. Michael Carter-Williams & Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks). Combined PER: 31.1. Giannis is listed as either a 2 or a 3, but I think he will play more backcourt this season as the Bucks integrate Greg Monroe and Jabari Parker into the starting lineup, with Khris Middleton playing the 3. The Greek Freak has the potential to be great – like top 20 player in the league great – and should improve in all areas this year with more polish. MCW is a big PG who gives the Bucks a defensive answer for the Kyrie Irvings and Derrick Rose’s of the East. Both guys are pretty atrocious shooters, that must improve quickly.

Solid and Steady

14. Mike Conley & Courtney Lee (Memphis Grizzlies). Combined PER: 30.1. I love Mike Conley – his top priority is getting teammates involved in the offense and feeding his awesome big men. He’s as steady as they come, and he shoots lefty. A lot to like there. Lee is just sort of there…you can count on him for 10 points and 1-2 threes per game, which has not been enough for low scoring Memphis to get past the West powerhouses.

13. George Hill & Monta Ellis (Indiana Pacers). Combined PER: 38. Maybe it was just because I totally ignored the Pacers last season, but I was amazed when looking up Hill’s stats. He was excellent! He shot almost 48 percent while scoring 16 points a game with an out-of-nowhere 21.5 PER. Monta should help boost Hill’s pedestrian assist numbers. Last year’s Pacers were not so good at trivial things like scoring. Ellis had one of his best seasons last year as well, functioning as a point guard at times for Dallas. We’ll have to see how these two fit together. It could go bad real fast if Ellis reverts to being a chucker.

12. Jeff Teague & Kyle Korver (Atlanta Hawks). Combined PER: 35.4. These two had a great season in 2014-15 and the continuity will help the Hawks this year. If they want to even sniff 60 wins again, Teague’s passing and Korver’s shooting will be main factors.

Carried by a Superstar PG

11. Kyrie Irving & Iman Shumpert (Cleveland Cavaliers). Combined PER: 32.6. Kyrie may be out the first couple months recovering from surgery but he’s a top 5 point guard when healthy. Shumpert is a defensive role-player on this team, but they could really use better shooting from him.

10. Russell Westbrook & Dion Waiters (Oklahoma City Thunder). Combined PER: 39.2. Russ went HAM last year with Durant out of the lineup. Many can argue that he hurt the team with his ball-dominance, but I won’t complain because it produced Oscar Robertson-like stat lines and endless quality Vines. His PER was nearly 30 and if he was paired with even a league-average guard rather than Waiters, they’d be a few spots higher on this list.

Loaded with Talent

9. Kyle Lowry & DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors). Combined PER: 36.7. Both battled injuries last year at different times but when they shared the floor Toronto became a perimeter nightmare for opposing teams to guard. Both really fizzled in the playoffs, which will need to change if they want to stay in the top 10.

8. Chris Paul & JJ Redick (Los Angeles Clippers). Combined PER: 42.2. Paul is a generational point guard who will make all his teammates look better. Redick, however, is not just a normal player. His off-ball movement drives defenders crazy and he creates so much space for Paul and the bigs to work due to the threat of his 3-point shooting. The Clippers should be improved this year, and have a terrible taste in their mouths given their last two playoff flame outs. Expect big things.

7. Tony Parker & Danny Green (San Antonio Spurs). Combined PER: 32.4. This was a tough one to figure out, especially since Parker has noticeably declined with age. But these two are champions that have proven they can win playing together. Green’s 3-and-D is hugely important to new-look San Antonio’s title dreams.

Show and Prove

6. Eric Bledsoe & Brandon Knight (Phoenix Suns): Combined PER: 28.9. You may say this is a reach. But I have faith, even if these are basically two point guards sharing a backcourt. Knight played his best basketball last season in Milwaukee. Bledsoe is a cornerstone for Phoenix. Phoenix has a wide range of outcomes based on things like Markieff Morris’s sanity and Tyson Chandler’s age, but one thing that is not a question mark is the backcourt.

5. Goran Dragic & Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat). Combined PER: 40.2. Dragic and Wade actually shot better than any other backcourt last season, 48.5%, after the February trade that sent Dragic over from the Suns. The pairing never got a chance to play together with Chris Bosh, who thankfully is cleared to play this season. Dragic is good enough to shoulder the scoring load on those nights when D-Wade’s knees are barking. This should be a phenomenal partnership.

4. Ty Lawson & James Harden (Houston Rockets). Combined PER: 45.2. They haven’t played a game together yet, but the potential makes your mouth water. Harden had an MVP-like year handling a bulk of the Rockets’ scoring, but he also was asked to handle the ball pretty much all game. That’s not a sustainable strategy as the miles on Harden’s body add up. He also was tops in the league in turnovers, many times having to force plays late in the shot clock when the offense broke down. If they can figure it out, Lawson can be the primary ballhandler, always a threat to beat his man for an easy layup or pull from three, while Harden works the angles and gets more open shots. Lawson needs to figure out his alcohol issues first and foremost, but he’s found his way into a great situation.

Only Injuries Can Stop Them

3. John Wall & Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards) Combined PER: 33.9. This star pairing is entering its fourth year together and I’m betting the improvement over Year 3 will be vast. Beal in particular had a tough time finding his rhythm after an early injury. Yet Washington still swept Toronto and pushed top seed Atlanta to six games in the playoffs. Wall is a blur on the court with great court vision and a killer instinct to take and make the final shot. Beal is a pure shooting guard that can play some defense and make a defense pay for helping on Wall. With a clean bill of health, this is the year Wall and Beal put themselves on the map as a top-3 backcourt.

2. Derrick Rose & Jimmy Butler (Chicago Bulls). Combined PER: 37.2. Rose, in his first real meaningful regular season minutes in three years, showed hints of his old brilliance and some serious inefficiency. His PER last year was eight points lower than his career high of 23.5, he shot just 41 percent from the field and 28 percent from three. Rose will never be the player he was in 2010; that’s the bad news. The good news is now he doesn’t have to be. His backcourt mate Butler came into his own last year and will be the Bulls’ 2 guard for the foreseeable future. There have been questions, mostly baseless in my opinion, about friction between Butler and Rose. Only time will tell, but I believe they will be a force together under a Fred Hoiberg offense that will be more imaginative and fluid than past Thibodeaux attacks. I predict this year that Rose will have a career high in assists.

The Gold Standard

  1. Steph Curry & Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors). Combined PER: 48.8(!). Like it could be anyone else? One guy was the league MVP and the other scored 37 points in a single quarter against the Kings last year. Fresh off an NBA Finals championship, look for these two to continue their barrage of threes and highlight reel fast breaks. I can’t wait.

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