Ranking Jeremy Lin-James Harden with NBA's Smartest Backcourts
A great backcourt doesn't just play well. It plays smart. We as fans have often heard the phrase "basketball IQ." So is the combination of Jeremy Lin and James Harden the NBA equivalent of Mensa? And if not, who's smarter?
First off, let's get this out of the way: If you're judging by college attended, obviously Lin wins. He's the first NBA player from Harvard in over 55 years. And he's the first Ivy League NBA player in ten years. So if that's our only criterion, article over.
Let's dig deeper, shall we?
Bear in mind, an average IQ is 100. An IQ of 135 or higher is considered genius-level. And though a minute subsection of the population can actually score higher than 200 on an IQ test, let's use 200 as the gold standard for genius.
But instead of math and verbal tests, we'll grade our guards on criteria like their ability to find the open man, find and make the open shot, free throw accuracy, turnover ratio and most importantly, intangibles.
Also, bear in mind that we're only considering genius-level tandems. And finally, the duo has to have played together in this NBA season. So the Chicago Bulls backcourt, for example, will not appear (although with Kirk Hinrich as their starting point guard, even the great Derrick Rose could probably not elevate the pair into high-IQ society).
When it comes to backcourt partnerships, who are the NBA's Einsteins?
Stats used in this article were accurate as of 11/22/12.
These partnerings were more than one standard deviation above the norm, but not quite genius-level:
Ty Lawson / Andre Iguodala, Denver Nuggets: Ty Lawson is fast and talented, but his numbers are way down, and so are Iggy's. The season may yet prove me wrong, but... IQ: 127
Chris Paul / Willie Green, Los Angeles Clippers: CP3, for my money, is still the best point guard in basketball. In addition to his immaculate scoring prowess, he's averaging 10 assists per game, and essentially leading the league in player efficiency rating for point guards.
But Willie Green? Except for a career-best year in three-point shooting percentage last season—he was seventh in the league—Green's a journeyman at best. And unfortunately, he's the starting 2.
Now, if it were Jamal Crawford, who appears headed for the Sixth Man Award, or even Chauncey Billups when he returns from his Achilles heel injury? These guys might go to the head of the class, or pretty darned close. Right now... IQ: 129
Russell Westbrook / Thabo Sefolosha, Oklahoma City Thunder: Westbrook brings the score way up...but Thabo brings it way down. He's not a bad player, merely a serviceable one, albeit one with considerable defensive skills. But think how incredible this backcourt would have been had Harden stayed. IQ: 131
Steve Nash / Kobe Bryant—IQ: 135
On paper, the pairing of Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant seemed not only like the NBA's best backcourt, but quite possibly the best backcourt of all time.
But so far, the Los Angeles Lakers duo just scrapes by at the bottom of the genius pool.
The why is simple: Steve Nash's minor injury that turned into a fractured fibula. Nash is now out indefinitely, leaving us to wonder what might have been, at least for now.
Bryant is in his 17th season, two more than Michael Jordan. And he's changed his game to adapt to changing rules and changing strategies. He's famous for his masterful and deadly offensive game, but Kobe is a top-tier defender as well, having made 12 of the last 13 All-Defensive teams, ten of them as a first-teamer. And his five championships and league MVP give him tons of intangibles.
Nash, when he's healthy, is a master of the pick-and-roll and has an uncanny ability to find the open man, often in jaw-dropping style. For his career, Nash has averaged over 8.5 assists per game, an astonishing accomplishment given how many years he's been in the league. Two MVP awards give him the intangible factor as well.
As a duo, they're not young, and right now they're not healthy. When Nash gets back, the odds are high that this pairing will be the NBA version of Stephen Hawking.
Stephen Curry / Klay Thompson—IQ: 136
Stephen Curry had already established himself as one of the NBA's top ten point guards coming into this season. His scoring is up—he's averaging 18.73 ppg—but his efficiency is the lowest it's been since he's been a pro. Part of that is because of a thus-far-mediocre three-point percentage. But he still plays the position with calm and wisdom.
Health is still a question—every time he lands hard, Golden State Warriors fans hold their breath—but thus far, Curry is solid.
Klay Thompson is in a similar situation: Scoring average up, efficiency way down. He's got the talent, but he can't seem to break out of his shooting slump.
For now, I'll give them a break, simply based on talent, and say they just squeak into SuperSmartVille. Which is nice, because Golden State deserves some props.
Mario Chalmers / Dwyane Wade—IQ: 141
Again, this score is mostly earned by the incredible Dwyane Wade.
I admit, I counted the guy out when he was injured often early in his career. But Wade has been healthy more seasons than he has not, and when he has, Wade has been a pleasure to behold, with acrobatic and daring moves to the basket, proven scoring night in and night out, unselfish play, timely assists and a solid free-throw percentage.
In addition, he has demonstrated a high basketball IQ. As evidence, take his Miami Heat's 2006 title. Down two games to none, Wade realized that the only way to beat the Dallas Mavericks was for him to get to the line. Wade averaged more than 16 free throws per game over that six-game series, and in games five and six, Wade went to the line a combined 46 times.
Though his shooting averages are down this year, Wade still presents one of the more difficult matchups in the NBA.
Mario Chalmers brings this score down. He's averaging 4.75 assists per game—but who couldn't find the open man 4.75 times per game as the point guard for the Heat, a team more loaded with stars than a planetarium? Chalmers does have a nice outside shot, and plays solid on-ball defense, but his shooting percentage is just OK. Ask Chalmers himself, however, and he'll tell you he's one of the NBA's top ten point guards.
Hate to break it to you, Mario, but your basketball IQ offsets Wade's to a large degree. Together, the Heat duo just barely cracks the genius barrier.
Tony Parker / Danny Green—IQ: 142
Forget that San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker speaks fluent French, which instantly makes him impressive on the regular IQ test.
The guy's name rarely rolls off the tongue when the league's elite point guards are discussed. But under the radar, Parker has been a consistently impressive starter for 11 years. He's still averaging close to eight assists per game, and after all this time, and all the wear and tear of the Spurs' many playoff runs, he's still got above-average speed.
Danny Green has proven himself to be a reliable starter, with 11 points per game, an .889 free throw percentage, and a .430 average from behind the arc. But the genius-level score is really for Parker.
Too bad we couldn't consider Ginobili. Not only is he a great player, but Manu fluently speaks Spanish, Italian and English. Sounds pretty darned smart to me.
Darren Collison / O.J. Mayo—IQ: 147
Dallas Mavericks point guard Darren Collison's stats are good: 13.3 ppg, 6.5 assists. And he can shoot the outside shot. He's not the phenom many expected after a very nice rookie year, but he acquits himself nicely at the point.
O.J. Mayo, though, appears to be having a breakout season. Almost 22 points per game on almost .500 shooting, which includes a ridiculous .582 from beyond the arc.
This backcourt, still one of the NBA's younger pairings, may be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Jeremy Lin / James Harden—IQ: 148
Unfortunately, at this point in the season, I attribute much more of this score to Harden than Lin.
I consider Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden to be one of the best stories of this young NBA season, and perhaps in all of sports, simply because he's a guy who first signed a max contract, and then goes out every night and earns it. Too often in sports, players play for the payday, then disappear or disappoint. Not Harden.
The bearded maestro is averaging over 24 points a game, and shooting a sterling .828 from the stripe. Harden came back from the flu and promptly dropped 28 on the Bulls. He's young, so he has to prove he can play at a Big Bang Theory level beyond last year's playoffs and this season's first month, but so far James Harden has been one of the NBA's brightest stars.
Point guard Jeremy Lin is a different story altogether. I remember getting excited about Linsanity…and yet I had only seen ESPN highlights of Lin's play. When I watched him, his play to me seemed skillful but unexceptional. Then came the crash back to earth after that amazing month.
I am very leery of the superstar-for-a-brief-time scenario. I grew up in Detroit, and the name "Scott Mitchell" can still fill a Detroit Lions fan with dread. He had a short but solid stint in Miami coming in for an injured Dan Marino, the Lions used that scant data to sign Mitchell to a huge free-agent contract instead of retaining the far superior Erik Kramer, and to me and many fans, Mitchell's lack of courage and leadership was unquestionably the biggest reason those Barry Sanders Lions did not win a Super Bowl.
So when the Rockets went out on a limb to sign him, though I was excited, I was skeptical of the deal. Jeremy Lin is going to give you all he's got every night. But I am not convinced all he's got is enough. So far this season, the numbers bear me out: Lin is averaging over six assists per game, but his shooting percentage is a paltry .333 and just .229 from long range. He's also gotten burned defensively a few times in the last few games.
If Lin can play with more efficiency, this duo's score will go up. But as of right now, that's a big and justifiable if.
Kyrie Irving / Dion Waiters—IQ: 150
No one was quite sure what to expect of Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard Dion Waiters before the season. But the rookie has had a nice season thus far, averaging almost 14 points per game. His free-throw shooting needs to improve, as does his shooting percentage—he's 37th among shooting guards in player efficiency.
The jewel here, though, is point guard Kyrie Irving. As good as his rookie season was, he's scoring at an even higher clip this year, dropping almost 23 points on opponents. Irving simply gets it done, night in and night out, at a very high level.
Brandon Jennings / Monta Ellis—IQ: 152
In Damon Runyon parlance, this Milwaukee Bucks backcourt is a comer. Brandon Jennings is dishing 7.5 assists per game, scoring at a 16.9 ppg clip and is in ninth place in player efficiency rating among point guards. He's also a lot of fun to watch.
Monta Ellis understands his position. He attacks relentlessly, drawing plenty of fouls, which allow him to show off his sparkling free-throw percentage. Ellis also fills it up for 20 points per game. His 3-point shooting is off, though.
This is one of the two pairings on the list—the other being Dallas' backcourt—with the highest ceiling.
Rajon Rondo / Jason Terry—IQ: 153
Rajon Rondo, it can be argued, is the NBA's premier point guard.
The Boston Celtics point guard has recorded the second-most assists in the NBA over the past four years, behind only Steve Nash, and has four straight All-Defensive Team selections to his credit.
His ability to read defenses and find the open man is remarkable. He's also very aware of who he's matched up against on any given night, and will post up and penetrate relentlessly on a player whom he knows can't guard him. And let's not forget his 10-assist streak, artificially kept alive against the Detroit Pistons the other night, but still very impressive.
Rondo has his detractors, but I'm not sure why: most every team in the NBA would love to have him at the point.
Jason Terry, his backcourt running mate, has done very well indeed as Ray Allen's replacement, outdueling Courtney Lee for the starting spot, scoring 11 points a game, sporting a .500 field-goal percentage with a .390 average from downtown and a sterling free-throw percentage.
Boston has had its ups and downs this year, but they're not due to this excellent backcourt.
Raymond Felton / Jason Kidd—IQ: 162
When Jason Kidd agreed to terms with the New York Knicks, fans in the Big Apple saw two reasons to be excited: Kidd would be an exceptional mentor for Jeremy Lin, and serve as a calming influence for trigger-happy Raymond Felton, whom Knicks faithful were perilously close to running out of town on a rail.
Talking about flipping the script.
Lin is gone. Kidd, widely recognized as one of the all-time greatest point guards in the history of the NBA, made a stunning transition to the 2 after Iman Shumpert was injured, and thus far he's been nothing less than efficient, and often amazing.
Kidd is playing the position like he thinks his Hall of Fame plaque reads "shooting guard," shooting over 50 percent from the floor—which includes over 50 percent from three-point range—and has yet to miss a free throw. Throw in his massive experience, including an NBA title and multiple Finals trips, and he's bringing a lot to the Madison Square Garden floor.
And Raymond Felton, who took over for Lin at the point, has been a revelation, especially considering his tough year last year. He's averaging over 6 assists per game, and Felton has never had a turnover rate anywhere close to this low: He's at 12 percent this season. Combine that with his 34 percent assist rate and you've got yourself an extremely efficient point guard.
Thus far these two have been absolutely playing at genius level. So what keeps their IQ grade from being higher? The simple question of whether or not they can keep it up all season. Felton still has more to prove, and Kidd has to stay healthy.
But so far, break out the pencil protectors for these two.
Deron Williams / Joe Johnson—IQ: 170
Brooklyn, America's fourth-largest city were it not a New York borough, is perpetually underrated as a community.
But it is difficult to underrate their exceptional backcourt.
Deron Williams is a superb passer, averaging 8.22 assists per game, and also fills it up to the tune of 18 ppg. He drives to the basket like a Maserati, he's made three All-Star teams, and he's finally on a team that has a chance to win it all.
Right beside him is the formidable Joe Johnson. He goes off for 15 a night, is sparkling from the free-throw line, and has made six All-Star teams.
On paper, these guys are the brain trust of the NBA's backcourt partnerships.
So why don't I give them a perfect 200 on the genius scale?
Simple: Johnson's efficiency. That's always been the knock on Joe, and Johnson believed that the Nets, not having to rely on him as much as the Atlanta Hawks did, would provide the perfect opportunity for him to prove himself an efficient player.
His shooting percentage so far, though, is a paltry .359. And his player efficiency rating is 13.72, good for a mere 32nd place among shooting guards. Not good enough, plain and simple.
But still, this backcourt duo is the most brilliant the NBA has to offer.