Updated Ranking of the NBA's Best Young Backcourts, Post-Free Agency Edition
Centers may help win championships, but guards usually draw in crowds. When you have two terrific players set to line up at point guard and shooting guard, it makes the fanbase happy.
It also helps when the studs are young, because that means that we're dealing with plenty of unrealized potential and/or high-quality years left in the tank. Young players are often more fun than their older counterparts.
Of the 30 starting backcourts in the NBA, eight are set to feature two players who are 25 or younger. That's the only way to qualify for these rankings. If one of the expected starters is already 26, too bad for them.
In rankings this competitive, one standout isn't enough to carry a backcourt. They say it takes two to tango, but it also takes a complete pair in order to finish at No. 1 in the countdown of the league's top young backcourts.
Offseason moves—both acquisitions of new players and the retaining of old ones—have shaped three of these tandems, but did they help create the top pairing?
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.
8. Utah Jazz: Trey Burke and Alec Burks
Even if both Trey Burke and Alec Burks are expected to start for the Utah Jazz, it's not like either one of them has a lot of NBA experience.
Burks, a 22-year-old shooting guard out of Colorado, is the veteran of the two, and he has yet to start a single game in his two-year career. He just has the advantage over his fellow backcourt member simply because he's not a rookie.
That said, given Burks' size and slashing abilities, as well as Burke's knack for carrying the scoring load and truly commanding an offense, this duo has the potential to rise up the rankings rather quickly. Summer League didn't treat the Michigan product particularly well, but that doesn't count for much.
"Rather quickly" doesn't include the 2013-14 season, though.
This duo will only be so good during its first season playing side by side. Burke has Rookie of the Year potential, but only because we're dealing with a weak crop of first-year players. Burks could also break out, but his upside is limited until he develops a more consistent perimeter jumper.
Each of the other seven backcourt tandems has at least one potential All-Star, but the same can't be said about this one. At least their last names sound cool together.
7. Charlotte Bobcats: Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson
The Charlotte Bobcats wouldn't have been very well off had they not decided to bring back restricted free agent Gerald Henderson, but now the team is in surprisingly good shape.
If Cody Zeller's Summer League exploits weren't just a mirage created by the lack of talent in Las Vegas, this starting lineup actually looks—dare I say it?—competitive. A five-man unit of Kemba Walker, Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller and Al Jefferson could actually surprise quite a few people.
While Jefferson is the best player on the roster, Kemba isn't too far behind him.
He was much more efficient as a second-year point guard, upping his field-goal percentage 5.7 ticks to 42.3 percent while averaging 17.7 points per game. Walker is improving as a facilitator, but he's still primarily a scorer.
That will have to change during his third season, as he's now surrounded by more offensive talent than ever before. MKG still isn't much of a scorer, but the same can't be said about the other three members of the starting lineup.
Walker's efficiency should only increase now that the team has a consistent low-post presence to take some of the perimeter pressure off. The same applies to Henderson.
The former Duke standout still hasn't developed an outside shot, but he's become an increasingly dangerous scorer as his underrated career has progressed. During the 2012-13 campaign, he was better than ever at drawing contact and getting to the charity stripe, and that should continue to serve him well as he gains more veteran savvy.
6. Washington Wizards: John Wall and Bradley Beal
Now we take a major step up from the first two backcourt tandems.
John Wall and Bradley Beal start a different tier of young backcourts—one occupied by, well, just them.
Wall has the potential to make the All-Star team in 2014, and he presumably would have been close to doing so in 2013 if injuries hadn't pushed his season debut way back. Once he returned, the Wizards were quite obviously a different team.
No. 2's incredible offensive skill makes things easy for his teammates. Whether he's driving to the basket and kicking the rock out to the perimeter or just drawing in inordinate amount of attention from the defense, his dynamic game helps more than just him.
It's nearly impossible to stay in front of Wall, and the development of a threatening three-point shot will force defenses to actually play up on him instead of sagging off.
Beal, meanwhile, has no such problem letting fly from the perimeter.
He made 1.6 three-pointers per game on 38.6 percent shooting from downtown. In the history of the NBA, only 49 rookies have matched or exceeded those numbers.
As relayed by The Washington Post's Michael Lee, Wall has higher hopes than I do for this backcourt:
I feel if both of us stay healthy, we’ll be top-five, top-six best backcourts in the league. Him as a young player, he’s very mature. He knows how the game goes. He’s just like me, a competitive person.
Let's shoot for top-five or top-six among young backcourts before looking at the overall picture. Everyone else ahead of Wall and Beal in these rankings is significantly more established, and the health hypotheticals don't have to come into play as much.
5. Houston Rockets: Jeremy Lin and James Harden
As mentioned in the previous slide, we've taken another step up in the backcourt tiers. From this point forward, each and every duo has a player who has been selected to an All-Star team (or really should have been picked).
The Houston Rockets' young backcourt will go as far as Jeremy Lin can take it.
We already know what to expect from James Harden. He's going to completely control the offensive proceedings, especially now that he's playing with an even more dynamic pick-and-roll threat (Dwight Howard). Between his outside shooting and ability to finish either through contact or at the charity stripe, he could be the league's best offensive player in 2013-14.
That's really not an exaggeration. Harden is that good offensively.
His defense admittedly needs some work, but that comes with time. He's more used to carrying the offensive burden now, so he'll be able to expend more energy on the less glamorous side of the court.
As for Lin, it's pretty clear that Linsanity was a phenomenon of the past. Although he received more playing time in Houston than he did with the New York Knicks, his points, rebounds and assists per game all dipped.
Lin is a solid point guard and on the fringe of being a top-100 player in the league, but he's much more of a complementary piece than anything else. His pick-and-roll skills depend on other players bailing him out and opening things up for him, and he isn't much of a defender either.
In fact, that's the best way for this duo to improve. If Lin can exert more defensive pressure on opposing guards, he'll be more valuable than ever.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters
James Harden is better than Kyrie Irving, but not by more than Dion Waiters is better than Jeremy Lin. That's what allows the young Cleveland Cavaliers backcourt to push past its Houston counterpart.
Irving is one of the NBA's youngest offensive superstars. His handles are unmatched across the Association, and he can score in just about any way you can dream up, including while pretending to be some old man named Uncle Drew.
However, he needs to stay healthy and develop more of a defensive game if he wants to push past the bearded shooting guard in anyone's player rankings.
But the Irving-Harden comparison doesn't help Cleveland's case at No. 4.
It's all about Waiters.
The rookie shooting guard out of Syracuse was simply a different player after the All-Star break, and that's what allows him to make up the difference and more. He averaged an additional 1.9 points per game, but the main difference was his efficiency.
Before the All-Star festivities, Waiters shot 39.6 percent from the field and coughed up the ball over 2.1 times per contest. But after he was able to recharge his batteries, he drilled his attempts 45.8 percent of the time and brought the turnovers figure down to 1.8.
It's that version of Waiters that I'm counting on when I rank the Cavs at No. 4. If pre-All-Star Waiters shows up, they'll fall down to No. 6.
3. New Orleans Pelicans: Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon
This might require you to dig deep into your memory banks, but think back to the 2010-11 season and remember the version of Eric Gordon that played for the Los Angeles Clippers. He was one of the brighter young stars and appeared to be the future of the shooting guard position.
That year, Gordon averaged 22.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game while showing off a terrifying blend of interior and perimeter scoring.
Things changed when he joined the New Orleans Pelicans. He wasn't particularly happy, and his knees caused him all sorts of problems.
They're about to change again.
Gordon has had plenty of time to get healthy, and he's going to be in significantly better spirits now that he's playing with the Pelicans. Going to work alongside an old AAU teammate while playing for a markedly more talented squad tends to do that for a player.
And if that's the case, New Orleans could boast not one, but two All-Star backcourt members.
Jrue Holiday is the other, and he'll be looking to continue the success he found while playing with the Philadelphia 76ers. Another dynamic offensive point guard, the 23-year-old should thrive with even more protection in the lineup.
He wore down in 2012-13 as the offensive burden took its toll, but that shouldn't be the case now that he's playing alongside Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis.
There are many reasons for people in the bayou to get excited, and this ranks right up there with the best of them.
2. Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson
The Splash Brothers are set to rain in even more three-pointers for the Golden State Warriors in 2013-14 than they did in 2012-13.
While Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson lit it up from behind the arc last year, they'll get to look for even more spot-up opportunities now that they're playing beside a facilitating small forward. Harrison Barnes emerged as a nice scoring option, but he still didn't do much to create for his teammates.
The same can't be said about Andre Iguodala, whose versatile, stat-stuffing ways certainly include a knack for setting up his teammates.
In 2012-13, Thompson made 2.6 three-pointers per game while shooting 40.1 percent from downtown. Curry made 3.5 per contest on 45.3 percent shooting.
Only three players in the entire NBA made at least 2.5 triples each game on better than 40 percent shooting: Thompson, Curry and Kyle Korver. That's when you know you're the top shooting backcourt in the game.
In fact, only 24 players have ever topped those marks, and the Splash Brothers are the only teammates to do so in the same season. Mark Jackson really wasn't kidding when he called the duo the greatest shooting backcourt of all time.
Now if only they could both play defense.
Iggy's arrival will help mask some of the defensive deficiencies, but the Dubs allowed three more points per 100 possessions when Thompson was on the court and 5.3 more when Curry was on the floor. That has to change for them to move up to No. 1.
1. Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler
How many other backcourts feature a 24-year-old NBA MVP and one of the league's fastest-rising stars?
None? Well, that should make this easy to justify then.
Derrick Rose is the best player I've featured in this article, bar none. James Harden is close, but Rose is just on another level when he's healthy. He's one of the few players who can challenge Chris Paul for the point guard crown, and his attacking mentality just makes everything far easier for the Chicago Bulls.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler used Rose's absence to break out, and he'll look to continue that success after his point guard officially returns to the lineup. The Marquette product looked increasingly potent on offense as his second season progressed, and he was even showing off a deadly three-point shot and fadeaway step-back jumper.
In fact, Butler shot 47.5 percent from behind the arc after the All-Star break, and he was lofting up shots twice a game. This wasn't just a fluke of small sample size, but rather, a consistent trend. He did top 40 percent from downtown in the postseason as well.
Butler's game is all about defense, though. The offensive production is just gravy.
He was a fearless defender throughout his second professional season, consistently guarding the opposing squad's best wing player and never looking overmatched.
Despite the tough assignments, Butler still allowed only 0.76 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). That places him at No. 29, and he'll only get stronger (both literally and figuratively) as he bulks up and becomes more adept at preventing buckets in post-up situations.
Chicago's backcourt—assuming a full return to health on the part of Rose—is simply as good as it gets, both in terms of young backcourts and old ones.