Whether it’s Manu Ginobili faking defenders out of their shoes or Chris Paul sucking in the defense for an over-the-top lob, some of the NBA’s most spectacular highlights come from the league’s craftiest players.
Obviously, talent and physical abilities matter, but we’re not talking about anti-gravity hops or blazing speed here.
Craftiness isn’t defined by any one particular trait. Instead, it’s a combination of basketball IQ, creativity, a little bit of trickery and maybe even be a dash of weirdness.
Overall, to make this list, you’ve got to have a track record of outsmarting the opposition by doing something unconventional or unexpected.
Often, the league’s wiliest players develop these unique methods to compensate for holes in their games or waning athleticism. In other instances, they are just born with a handful of cunning moves.
These tricks of the trade help define many of today’s most unconventionally effective stars. By way of example, try to imagine Rajon Rondo without seeing that signature behind-the-back fake in your mind.
Try not to get crossed up on a Eurostep and make sure you don’t reach. We’re about to chronicle the 10 craftiest players in the NBA.
The Phoenix Suns found a way to reacquire Goran Dragic a little over a year after trading him away to the Houston Rockets. It’s hard to know what changed in such a short amount of time to make the Suns want their point guard back.
Maybe they missed his craftiness.
Originally the understudy to a certain Canadian and two-time MVP in Phoenix, Dragic has combined the inborn trickiness of being left-handed with a handful of nifty behind-the-back moves.
Dragic has a tendency to exploit defenders who overplay his dominant left hand by spinning back the other way, as he did here against the block-happy Serge Ibaka.
If we were ranking the craftiest Slovenian players in the NBA, Dragic would easily be No. 1 (sorry, Beno Udrih).
He checks in at No. 10 here, though, on the strength of his knack for getting to the rim without elite athleticism and his sneaky passing.
Jason Kidd lands at No. 9 here, but he might also deserve a lifetime achievement award for sustained excellence in craftiness.
Now in his 19th season, Kidd has fashioned a Hall of Fame career by consistently making the right pass, anticipating on defense and running the break. Only John Stockton has more assists and steals in the NBA record books.
Kidd’s basketball genius has allowed him to play despite an almost total disappearance of his athleticism. In the waning stages of his career, the New York Knicks’ guard now earns minutes by playing terrific position defense and hitting threes.
In fact, a late-career uptick in long-range accuracy now has Kidd at No. 3 all time in made triples.
That ability to transform is its own special blend of craftiness. Few players survive after many of their physical gifts leave them, but Kidd’s remarkable basketball brain has allowed him to thrive.
Rubio’s absence from the night-to-night highlight shows has been a real drag, but we still have plenty of clips from his rookie year to tide us over while he recovers from a torn ACL.
"Spanish Fly" showed some dynamite defensive skills last year, and he flashed the ability to bait opposing players into throwing passes he planned to snatch all along.
But Rubio’s crafty game is really all about his assists, and some of them sure are fun to watch.
At such a young age, Rubio only figures to get better as he learns the league in the years to come.
New rule: If you have ever successfully executed a fake timeout in an NBA game, you’re on the list. We’ll call it the Andre Miller exception.
He hasn’t left the floor in years, and he’d struggle to blow by most folding chairs with his quickness, but Miller still gets by.
How? By employing the NBA’s deadliest old-man game.
If you’ve ever been embarrassed by the inexplicable strength and outright guile of some old dude at your local YMCA pickup game, you know exactly how rough Miller is on his opponents.
The Nuggets’ backup point guard boasts a fantastic post-up arsenal and still has the vision and creativity to throw some of the NBA’s best lobs. He manages to see angles most miss and can still make his younger competitors look silly with all the tricks he’s picked up over the years.
Typically, a single move wouldn’t be enough to earn a spot on this list of the league’s craftiest players.
But Luis Scola’s scoop shot is just too good to ignore.
The Phoenix Suns’ power forward is like a couple of other entries here, in that he rarely gets more than an inch or two off of the floor. Like the rest of his savvy, earth-bound brethren, though, Scola has turned to trickery in his losing battle against gravity.
We’ve got Vlade Divac to thank for pioneering the deceptive move on the block, but Scola has kept the sneaky scoop alive.
Come to think of it, with Scola on the list, the Suns have two of the NBA’s 10 craftiest players. Fans of wiliness and deception, please adjust your DVRs accordingly.
James Harden sees the game differently. In fact, if we take this video as evidence, he sees things that aren’t even there, like invisible teammates.
On its own, that’s kind of crafty, right?
Besides the ability to see what’s not there, Harden has also done a terrific impression of someone much higher up on this list. As a lefty, Harden earns crafty points right away, but it’s his creative use of the Eurostep and the knack for drawing contact with ease that set him apart.
"The Beard" comes in at No. 5 due to a combination of smarts, trickery and general weirdness.
Chris Paul has the ability to get wherever he wants on the court without hurrying. That has kind of a Zen feel to it, but Paul’s surgical dismantling of defenses is anything but peaceful.
With the best handle in the league, Paul attacks the tiniest crevices—wedging, spinning and knifing his way into the lane. He’s a genius when it comes to getting past his man and pinning the opponent behind him, which leaves room to operate in a five-on-four situation.
In addition to his otherworldly ball control, Paul is also a master at creating passing angles by drawing defenders toward him. When big men take a step away from the lane, CP3 can deliver a pinpoint dime from any angle, with either hand.
Above all, Paul gives off the impression that he is in total control of the other nine players on the court. His vision and understanding of positioning are unmatched.
Sometimes, being crafty means doing things that are weird or quirky, but in Paul’s case, it’s all about dominating the game with his brain.
Steve Nash does many of the same things that earned Chris Paul a nod on this list, but the two-time MVP ranks above the Clippers' point guard because he does them with half of Paul’s quickness and athleticism.
In Nash’s heyday, nobody was better at probing the defense for a passing angle, even from places as typically off-limits as the baseline. Often seeming totally trapped underneath, Nash would dribble below the bucket in order to draw attention away from perimeter gunners. He then, of course, would deliver slick passes (with either hand) to shooters or cutters.
Besides his ability to create for teammates, Nash boasts the most unusual array of flips, floaters and runners in the league. He can shoot off either foot, and because he hardly ever leaves the floor, defenses never know when one of Nash’s tricky flips is coming.
The Canadian is also the best pick-and-roll maestro in the league, which is more conventional but no less deserving of praise in the craftiness department.
Rajon Rondo might have one of the strangest games in the NBA. His monstrous hands and wingspan allow him to do things with the ball that nobody else can.
The only reason Rondo isn’t No. 1 on this list is because he hasn’t yet figured out a way to use his craftiness to generate scoring for himself. He’s never averaged more than 13.7 points per game in a season, and his poor free-throw shooting can occasionally give him pause to finish plays on his own.
If he could nail down a consistent three-point shot, Rondo could really do damage. As it is, defenders rarely get near him on the perimeter because of his shaky outside game.
Still, his quirky style and smart passing are crafty enough for Rondo to earn runner-up status here.
Behold, the Godfather of crafty. Manu Ginobili has absolutely every sneaky trick and quirky move in the book.
Let’s check the impressive qualifications:
-Constantly "wrong-foots" opponents, finishing with either hand while jumping off either foot, making his takeoff impossible to predict.
-Single-handedly popularized the Eurostep in America (despite actually being from Argentina).
-Even when his ridiculous moves go wrong, he still makes up new ones that are even weirder.
-Invented a one-handed, backward crossover.
Get the idea?
The San Antonio Spurs' veteran keeps coming up with new ways to embarrass opponents. With unrivaled creativity and a truly unique mental approach to the game, Ginobili is easily the craftiest player in the NBA.