The 10 Smartest Players in the NBA
For any team to have some sort of success, the chances are likely that they need to have a smart leader dictating the flow and rhythm of this team. If they're not a leader on the court, then they're either playing a prominent role on defense and being more of a "glue guy" that promotes team unity and working together as a cohesive unit.
Being a smart player on the court doesn't always translate to certain championships, but it will usually translate to success. All 10 of the players on this list have either won a title, come close to a title or have just gotten bad luck and have primarily been on bad teams. No matter where they are, however, they are still recognized as the smartest players in the NBA.
These guys know how to play the game well, and they know how to do it right. By utilizing fundamentals and treating this organization as a business, these 10 players have been looked at as some of the classier and most intelligent players in the league. It doesn't matter at what age they were; these players have always carried some sort of knowledge to the game.
So let's get into seeing who the 10 smartest players—in no particular order—in the league are, shall we?
Looks like that Duke University education paid off for once. Miami Heat small forward Shane Battier has been recognized by casual NBA fans and his peers alike as one of the NBA's smartest players.
Simply put, Battier knows how to play the game better than 99 percent of the league's players. Although he's never played the role of an elite scorer that either slices through defenses or is a prolific shooter from deep, Battier is the type of player who's looked at as a "glue guy." He's your stereotypical role player, but he's also the voice of reason who can keep a locker room in tact.
You'll never see Battier's name brought up in a negative light. He stays away from negative press and is strictly business on and off the court. He's one of the NBA's classiest players today and has been seen as such since being taken by the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2001 draft with the sixth pick as a 23-year-old.
We laud Battier for his personality and ability to keep his calm, but it's his defensive prowess that grabs the attention of any team he faces. He's never been the most athletic player, so he can't go the route of being LeBron James.
Instead, Battier scouts his assignment. He gets to know their tendencies and gives his assignment distance so they won't drive while also having the awareness on what the player does when they're getting ready to shoot.
Battier has perfected the art of using his hands on defense. By utilizing his hands, Battier shields his assignment from shooting or passing. It's one of the smartest things a defender could do, and Battier is one of the few defenders in the NBA that significantly uses it.
He's only averaging five points, six assists and five rebounds per game, but could you really ask for more from a 38-year-old who's been in the league since 1994?
From taking his first steps onto the hardwood of an NBA court as a 21-year-old playing for the Dallas Mavericks, to winning an NBA title as a 37-year-old, Jason Kidd has always been recognized as one of the smartest floor generals in the history of the game. Kidd is a perfect blend of fundamentals and flash, and it always results in his teammates receiving easy scoring opportunities.
Kidd has played on three teams with two separate stints in Dallas. His prime years came as a member of the New Jersey Nets, where he led two teams to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately, Kidd and the Nets would drop both series, both to dynasties in the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. Considering his rosters, however, it was a miracle that either team made it that far.
Those Nets teams, and even last year's Mavericks, can attribute a lot of their success to Kidd's court vision and awareness. He knows how to maintain the tempo on the floor, passes it to his teammates in a way that allows them to shoot with rhythm and is one of the craftiest and most precise passers you have seen since the days of Magic Johnson.
Kidd's turnovers have been a little questionable lately, but his court awareness is still prevalent and allowing the Mavericks to stay near the top of the Western Conference.
Since we're in the mood of talking about 38-year-old point guards, perhaps we should talk about one who's playing some of the best basketball of his Hall of Fame-worthy career.
The Phoenix Suns are teetering on the brink of obscurity. They're 14-20 and five games back of the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Those 14 wins that they currently have can all be attributed to the passing and shooting prowess of Steve Nash.
The ageless point guard hasn't appeared to even begin nearing the end of his career and is actually playing as well as he did when he joined Phoenix a second time in 2004. He's averaging 14 points per on an unbelievable 54 percent from the field, shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and dishing out a league-leading 11 assists per.
Nash has led the league in assists per for the past two seasons and in five of the past seven seasons. He has been averaging nearly four turnovers per in that span, but you can't really ask for much more when he's the dominant ball handler that does just about everything for this Suns team.
Think Dwyane Wade in Miami before LeBron James and Chris Bosh got there or Kobe Bryant in post-Shaq and pre-Gasol days. Nash has won two MVP's, yet has never been to an NBA Finals. Many contenders would enjoy his services, but he has declined each and every trade rumor that has been brought up.
You don't win five championships, two Final MVP's and a league MVP without carrying some sort of intelligence on the court.
Kobe Bryant may get criticized at times for not distributing the ball as much as he should, but it's tough to complain about someone when they have the accolades that I just mentioned. Bryant's selfishness has led the Los Angeles Lakers to dominance over the past decade and has even kept them afloat as an average team in their darkest times.
We all remember those days without Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol. Bryant had it rough dealing with Lamar Odom, Chris Mihm and Smush Parker as his team's top contributors. However, he persevered through those dark times, averaged 35 points per game, scored 81 in a single game and led the Lakers to the playoffs a few times.
Many will argue Bryant's intelligence when he's reluctant to give up the ball, but it's his knowledge of the game that allows him to thrive without passing. He's extremely intelligent as a scorer and knows all the angles and logistics of scoring from just about anywhere within half-court. He's one of the most feared scorers in league history because of how smart he can be on offense.
Let's not forget about his defense, either. Bryant is a world-class individual defender who can defend anyone from the one to three because of these accounts: His knowledge of his opponents' tendencies and his ability to read passes in the passing lane.
Bryant has always been revered as a deadly scorer in the clutch. If you can consistently score in the clutch, you need to have knowledge in order to have a strong mindset in those situations. If you're not smart enough of a player, you won't be able to contain your state of mind, which lowers your ability to succeed in the clutch.
Kobe Bryant may be a first-ballot Hall of Famer as soon as he retires, but he'll have to take a number behind San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan.
It is absolutely incredible how smart of a player Duncan is on offense, defense, in the locker room or off the court. Whether he was a 21-year-old rookie averaging 21 points and 12 rebounds or a 35-year-old averaging 14 points and nine boards per, Duncan's strongest suit has always been between his ears.
If you make a quick summary of Duncan's career, you will notice that athleticism has never been a strong suit of his. He's not the type of player that's going to dunk from a little within the foul line or block a shot and send it to the nosebleed sections. In fact, you'll hardly ever see Duncan exhibit any emotion at any stage of the game.
You can't get into Duncan's head. There is a quote in Shaquille O'Neal's book, Shaq Uncut, that states how Duncan is one of the only players in the league that doesn't listen or dish out trash talk. His mind is a steel trap, and his only focus is scoring points, playing defense, grabbing rebounds and winning games.
"The Spurs won because of Tim Duncan, a guy I could never break. I could talk trash to Patrick Ewing, get in David Robinson's face, get a rise out of Alonzo Mourning, but when I went at Tim he'd look at me like he was bored and say, Hey Shaq, watch this shot right here off the glass."
Duncan's lived by that mantra his entire career, and it's paid off in dividends. He's won four championships between 1999 and 2007, three Final MVP's and two league MVP's.
The Boston Celtics are an interesting bunch.
We think the Miami Heat have a lot of egos, but it doesn't even compare to what we see from the Celtics. You'll have Kevin Garnett screaming at opponents a foot shorter than him, Paul Pierce claiming he's the best player in the world and Rajon Rondo throwing water bottles threw video screens and basketballs at referees.
If you look way back in the corner of the Celtics locker room, however, you'll see the silent assassin, Ray Allen, not causing a commotion and staying out of the tabloids. Allen has been in the league since 1996, and not once have we heard of him in any sort of negative light. He's another player that treats the NBA as a business, and it's no wonder he's one of the most respected players in the league.
On the court, Allen is as scary as they come. He's not the type to talk trash, but he is the type of player to break your heart, shatter your dreams and give you nightmares for weeks. He's as deadly as they come in late-game situations and always seems to hit timely three-pointers whenever the opponent is threatening to make a comeback.
That's the thing with Allen. The Celtics will allow the opposition to come back and give them false hope, but they'll give the ball to Ray once or twice and immediately put the game out of reach. He has the strong mindset to make timely shots, and he has the intelligence to get open and take the easy shot.
Allen isn't as athletic as he used to be, but he's still getting open all the time on account of his knowledge on how he utilizes screens. Even at the age of 35, Allen is still running through his teammates in order to lose his defender, which he usually does before knocking down another three-pointer.
Ray is taking five three-pointers per game and converting on 49 percent of them. I'm shaking in my boots if this guy is my assignment.
Usually, the smartest players in the league are the most fundamental. They're not out to make it on ESPN's Top 10, they don't want to be on highlight reels and they don't care if they're not averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds/assists per game.
That's Chauncey Billups in a nutshell. He's never averaged better than 20 points or nine assists per game, yet he's widely been considered as one of the league's most dangerous floor generals on account of how fundamental of a player he is. Billups will always look to make the smart pass before he goes for the flashy one.
That's a huge problem for point guards at times. They try too hard to be crafty in order to throw the defense off. Instead of playing by the rules of a point guard and being fundamental, they'll throw the ball away too much and completely miss the point of being a quality point guard. Instead of being crafty, they need to keep the creativity to a minimum so that opponents won't always see it coming.
Billups keeps the flashy plays to a minimum. Even in his heyday as an NBA champion with the Detroit Pistons, Chauncey was keeping his team fair and balanced. In the season he won a title in 2004, Billups averaged 17 points and six assists before going on to win his first and only Finals MVP.
Fundamentals and being a terrific floor general and overall leader has been the key to Billups' sure to be Hall-of-Fame career.
In order to be consistent in the clutch, you need to be mentally strong.
Your mind tends to think of the negative aspects that are always possible in pressure situations. It's human nature to think of failure and the consequences of failing because you don't want to be the blame for your team losing. Elite players have fallen victim to this, and it's tarnished this image. However, there are other elite players who have always seemed to embrace these situations.
As soon as he made a game-winner with 1.3 seconds left in his first ever NBA playoff game, the Miami Heat knew they had a good thing going with Dwyane Wade. Keeping him around eventually paid off, as Wade would go on to lead the Heat to a 4-2 NBA Finals triumph over the Dallas Mavericks. The series win came after the Heat dropped the first two games of the series and came extremely close from dropping the first three.
Wade was the one who brought the team back and would be the eventual reason why they would win it. It takes an extremely strong and intelligent player to continually come alive in those situations, and Wade did that in four straight games—in the NBA Finals of all places.
Aside from that series, Wade has been one of the smartest players in the NBA on both sides of the ball. He's always drawing opposing players into fouls on account of his strong pump fakes (it's been nine years and defenders still fall for it), timing steals in the passing lanes, timing when to block the shots of players much taller than him without fouling and learning how to adjust to any type of defense the opposition throws at him.
He also managed to work his way through a few scary injuries and surgeries that could have very well limited his career. However, Wade rehabbed and improved to become the player he is today stronger and more athletic than ever.
One of the league's most underrated players for the past decade, Andre Miller seems to turn water into wine wherever he goes.
Miller has been a member of six teams in a career that started out in 1999 and has seen consistent success with any team he's spent time with. Like Chauncey Billups, Miller is another point guard that would rather use fundamentals and timely shots to win games instead of statistics and flash.
It's eerie how similar Miller and Billups are from a mental standpoint. Billups' stats are superior, but their games are equal in terms of their stats not being excessive, their personality being low-key and being able to rely strictly on their strong intelligence of the game to win.
Miller's career highs include averagintg 17 points and a league-leading 11 points per, both coming in his third season while a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even at the age of 35, Miller is still producing. The only difference is that he's coming off the bench predominantly for the first time since his rookie season and is still managing to average 11 points and seven assists per on the Denver Nuggets.
To some out there, this may be one of the more questionable and controversial selections on this list.
However, if you watched—I mean really watched—the NBA Finals last year, you'll know where I'm coming from when I select Tyson Chandler as one of the 10 smartest players in the league.
The Dallas Mavericks and their fanbase can give plenty of thanks to Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry hitting timely shots, Jason Kidd dictating the flow of the offense and Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson's individual defense, but a championship banner would not be flying from the rafters of the American Airlines Center if Tyson Chandler wasn't holding down the fort below the basket.
Even Nowitzki himself will tell you that Chandler deserves the majority of the credit for leading the Mavericks to a title. Nowitzki is quoted as saying:
"Tyson, to me, turned everything around this summer when we signed him," Dirk Nowitzki said Tuesday. "I think he came off a two-year injury and we didn't really know what to expect. But looking back now, that was almost the key signing. His positive energy, his defense I think is really what turned this whole thing around and what really won us the playoffs. Every big game down the stretch we did it with defense."
That's coming from the Finals MVP of the series. What Chandler did that Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood couldn't was giving the Mavericks a strong defensive mindset. For years, the Mavericks attempted to outscore their opponents with an average defense, but it was their inability to defend the rim that caused them to miss out on so many opportunities to win a championship prior to last year.
Chandler is one of the smartest defensive post players in the league because of his ability to defend without fouling. He has long arms, is threatening and intense and knows how to utilize those attributes to his advantage by keeping slashers from entering the paint at will.
It's extremely difficult for centers to stop drivers without fouling, but Chandler has found a way to do so. And that's what led the Mavericks to a title last year.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!