Power Ranking the Top 15 Starting Backcourts in the NBA
Follow the shooters and passers.
Strong backcourt mergers have become something of a fad in the NBA now that shooting has muscled all the glamor out of low-post scoring. Big men are still viewed as championship cornerstones, but teams value players who can push the pace and add offensive possessions to the box score just as much, if not more.
That begins in the backcourt.
Point guards are widely heralded as the most important players on their team, treasured for their playmaking and penchant for breaking down defenses. It's not by chance that the league is crawling with talented floor generals. Elite point men have become so common because they're a necessity.
Their backcourt mates are often just as important. More and more shooting guards are becoming situational dime-droppers, secondary playmakers who can run the offense and create for themselves when the rock is in their hands. Most of them tend to shoot too. A lot. And some of them score just as much.
The Association hosts a vast number of intimidating backcourts, pairings that sear opposing defenses—some of which transcend their already elite peers.
*Note: ESPN.com's depth charts were consulted, but starting backcourt projections were ultimately made at the writer's discretion (a.k.a. me).
Tier 3: The Works in Progress
30. Philadelphia 76ers: Michael Carter-Williams and Jason Richardson/?
Bob Cooney of Philly.com says Richardson may not play at all next season, meaning there's an opening alongside Carter-Williams that needs filling.
29. Utah Jazz: Trey Burke and Alec Burks
I imagine this backcourt will score a lot, but inexperience won't allow the two to do much else next season.
I'm also pretty sure there's a Burke/Burks joke in here somewhere.
28. Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo/Victor Oladipo
Options abound for the Orlando Magic.
Do they make Oladipo a point guard and bring Nelson off the bench? Or play the two together and let Afflalo join the second unit?
The suspense is killing me.
27. Sacramento Kings: Greivis Vasquez/Isaiah Thomas and Ben McLemore/Marcus Thornton
To be honest, I'm not sure what version of a backcourt we'll see from the Kings.
Pretending like I'm all up in Mike Malone's head, I'll say Thornton shifts to the 3 while Vasquez and McLemore get the start out back.
26. Milwaukee Bucks: Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo
If O.J. Mayo can get out of his own way and the Bucks resist their urge to be super-mediocre and start Luke Ridnour, this pair could be fun to watch.
Emphasis on "could."
Tier 2: The "Hey, We're Here Too" Crowd
25. Detroit Pistons: Brandon Jennings and Chauncey Billups
One is allergic to made jump shots; the other hasn't been healthy in two years.
Be thankful they made Tier 2.
24. Phoenix Suns: Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe
Please oh please Jeff Hornacek, let this happen.
It's just crazy and undersized enough to work.
23. Charlotte Bobcats: Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson
Charlotte actually has a decent backcourt. Were these two not such obvious defensive liabilities, they'd be much higher.
Plus, Kemba's crossovers.
22. Indiana Pacers: George Hill and Lance Stephenson
If Indiana is to continue this whole point guard-by-committee thing it has going, I'd rather have Stephenson and George together anyway.
21. Denver Nuggets: Ty Lawson and Randy Foye/Evan Fournier
Because Brian Shaw can't bring both Nate Robinson and Foye off the bench, right?
Also, I don't see Evan Fournier starting if the Nuggets want to make the playoffs. Either way, Denver's standing here won't change.
Tier 1: The "You Actually Left Us Off; You're a Tool" Squadron
20. Atlanta Hawks: Jeff Teague and Louis Williams/John Jenkins
This also could have been titled: Teague and I don't care.
Teague is an undervalued playmaker. When placed next to an offensive force like Williams or Jenkins, he will be just enough to carry the Hawks to a first-round exit.
Their placement stands to skyrocket if Mike Budenholzer has the cojones to throw Dennis Schroeder in at the 2.
19. New York Knicks: Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert/Pablo Prigioni
Felton is a consistent source of chaotic energy, while Shumpert is a future star and Prig full-court presses like the entire game is played in the final two minutes.
Believe me, they're a bubble backcourt. In New York's case, that's a good thing.
18. Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan
Should Lowry ever stay healthy, the Raptors might have something here. All we have to go off is the past, and history tells us he won't.
I lament with you, Toronto.
17. Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley and Tony Allen
It's a shame that Allen is so one-dimensional, because Conley is a fundamentally sound point guard deserving of a partner who can shoot.
Maybe these two can grit and grind their way up the ladder come the regular season.
16. Miami Heat: Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade
Two or three years ago, the Russell Westbrook effect would've applied here; Wade alone would've catapulted he and Chalmers into the top 15.
But there are too many other backcourts to consider and Wade isn't the same Wade. Also, away from a certain reigning league MVP, Chalmers isn't the ideal point man.
15. Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews
Few backcourts in the league are as offensively capable as the Portland Trail Blazers'.
Together, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews form a harrowing duo. Either of them can be a self-sufficient scorer, dribble penetrator or spot-up shooter. Lillard drives the ceiling of this couple with his youth, athleticism, Russell Westbrook-like explosion and Chris Paul-esque shooting.
When looking at the Blazers, Lillard's also the primary reason to expect anything out of the team. Remove LaMarcus Aldridge or Nicolas Batum from the lineup and Portland will be significantly worse. Pry Lillard from their clutches and the Blazers finish with the second-worst record in the Western Conference (chillax Rip City; it's basically a compliment).
My biggest qualm about this pairing is Matthews' ability to remain as effective on a team that doesn't rely solely upon its starters. With no bench to lean on, 30 to 35 minutes may or may not be the catalyst behind his impressive point totals.
Looking ahead, the Blazers have some semblance of a supporting cast, especially in the backcourt. Matthews can force-feed me my words if he likes next season, lest of course Portland's backcourt proves to be more of a one-man show than we thought.
14. Dallas Mavericks: Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis
Don't let Monta Ellis' unsightly shooting percentages or the Dallas Mavericks' inexplicably expensive offseason blind you. Big D has a talented backcourt on its hands.
Think of Jose Calderon as a more economical version of his companion. Like Ellis, he's an esteemed playmaker, but not only when he wants to be. Like Ellis, he can get into the paint, minus the over-dribbling. And like Ellis, he can play off the ball, sans the tawdry shot selection.
If the Mavericks make the playoffs or simply prevent themselves from sporting facial hair so untamed James Harden hands them a razor (but not really), thanks will be paid to both Ellis and Calderon. Aside from Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas' frontcourt is a mess and the team in general doesn't figure to play much defense. After that, there isn't anywhere else to turn save for the guards.
To stay above .500, Calderon and Ellis will have to form the backcourt Stephen Curry and Ellis, and Jennings and Ellis, were supposed to form. Dimes must be dropped. Points must be scored and three-pointers drained. And misses and turnovers should be kept to minimum.
I for one am high on this partnership. Higher than I've ever been on any situation Ellis has seen previously (Curry was too young). Whatever that means.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrok and Thabo Sefolosha
Thabo Sefolosha is underrated, ergo the Westbrook-Sefolosha pairing is underrated.
Half of this dyad flies under the radar even though he's a subtly effective two-way player. Sefolosha is amongst the best perimeter defenders in the league and is able to body up on the block if need be. His three-point shooting is also a strength unbeknownst to many. When his deep balls find the bottom of the net, the Oklahoma City Thunder's drive-and-kick offense can't be slowed.
Statistical context in these situations is dull, in that it's often toneless and recurrent. To really appreciate what Sefolosha does, however, it's beyond necessary.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Sefolosha drilled 42.8 percent of his spot-up treys last season while also holding opposing shooting guards to a PER of 12.6, per 82games.com. There's plenty of double-sided value to be found in Westbrook's sidekick.
But I'd be lying if I said Westbrook wasn't the driving force behind Oklahoma City's case for a top-15 finish. For all the jump shots he jangles off the rim, he's a potent athletic freak. Reaching the rim comes easy to him—and to any of those who have defended him in transition, may your dignity rest in peace.
And as long as we're being honest, if I'm building a team, I'd take Westbrook next to anybody over any of the previous pairings 10 times out of 10. Just in case you were wondering.
12. Washington Wizards: John Wall and Bradley Beal
Allow me one moment to put on my disdain-proof armor before you take to the ever-inviting comments section.
There, let's do this.
First, Evan Turner wins best inadvertent photobomb of the 2012-13 season. He looks like he's whispering sweet nothings into John Wall and Bradley Beal's ears, and I love it.
Next, understand that Wall and Beal's placement isn't an insult—rather an admittance that the two have so much left to prove.
Wall needs to show we can bet our bottom dollar on more than just his athleticism and incisive handles by improving his jumper and leading his team to $80 million worth of victories. Or at least a playoff berth, preferably with a record above .500.
Bradley merely needs to keep on trucking. He can shoot and isn't afraid to show it, even at crucial points of the game. Which is huge. His coordination in transition is also a thing of beauty; we just need to see more.
More efficiency, more commitment on defense, more growth overall—that goes for the both of them.
The Washington Wizards have one of the most promising young backcourts in the NBA, but Beal is still working out his college-to-pro kinks and Wall hasn't yet shown he's more than a fringe top-10 point guard. In due time these two figure to be amongst the most elite of guard combos. Until then, they'll inhabit the middle.
11. Boston Celtics: Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley
Often berated for my hatred of Rajon Rondo, I'm really a Rondo enthusiast. It's Avery Bradley I'm worried about.
The defensively oriented Bradley has exhibited a far more limited skill set than I thought he would. Injuries haven't helped, obviously, but it's becoming more apparent he's an undersized 2, not a combo guard capable of running the offense.
On the other end of the floor he's a stud. Opposing shooting guards notched a below-average 13.5 PER against him, and, via Synergy, he ranked 16th in the league in points allowed per possession (0.73) last season.
Numbers aside, he makes it cool to defend from the free-throw line extended. In a league dominated by shot-blocking ogres, he could (eventually) become the first perimeter guy to take home Defensive Player of the Year honors since Metta World Peace—if LeBron James doesn't beat him to it (can we even count him anymore?).
Provided he becomes a more accurate three-point gunner, the Boston Celtics could have a more prolific version of Sefolosha on their hands.
Bradley's merely the garnish to this backcourt cocktail, though. Rondo is the mixer and alcoholic beverage itself. Boston homers tend to overrate his jump shot, but everything else about him (except his coachability) has become underrated.
There are only two point guards in the league who rival Rondo's craftiness and ability to direct fast breaks and half-court sets—Chris Paul and Tony Parker. Were Rondo more aggressive in looking for his shot and played every game like it was nationally televised, he could be the best point guard in the league.
Assuming Rondo's comeback goes off without a hitch, the Celtics' backcourt will keep those begging for them to tank (so, me) at bay.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin
Kevin Martin is one Ricky Rubio breakout away from accounting for half of a top-seven backcourt. For now, cracking the top 10 will have to do.
Nearly devoid of three-point threats not named Kevin Love, the Minnesota Timberwolves went out and signed one of the best long-range snipers there is. They overpaid—seriously, they did—but instant outside offense comes at a premium in an era when running the ball through the post is outdated.
Martin drilled a career-best 42.6 percent of his treys last season, giving Rubio a three-point shooting comrade who isn't prone to injuring himself doing push-ups. Minnesota's offensive attack should now be replete with drive-and-kicks, pick-and-deep-pops and, my personal favorite, transition bombs.
One of the only things that could make this better is if Rubio developed a scoring conscience of his own. Over-passing syndrome has plagued the wily ball-handler since he entered the NBA, enabled by his lackluster perimeter shooting. Setting his feet and generating more arc behind his shot should help cure his three-point woes (31.7 percent for his career) and build confidence in the process.
Minny's point man is still a project of sorts, but while we wait for him to improve his shooting, we'll be treated to an avalanche of flashy dimes and Rubio-assisted threes from K-Mart.
9. New Orleans Pelicans: Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon
Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon are close to the same player, only the former is more aggressive in just about every aspect of the game.
In Holiday, the New Orleans Pelicans latched themselves onto a healthy All-Star who will make an excellent pick-and-pop partner for Anthony Davis. The manner in which he slashes through the paint is both elegant and explosive. He should open things up for New Orleans' shooters considerably.
One of those shooters needs to become Gordon. He's been more free to dominate the ball since joining the Pelicans—you know, when he's healthy—but he has to re-establish that balance he had with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Through his first three seasons, he hit on at least 36 percent of his treys. In New Orleans he has knocked down just 31 percent of his deep balls. Injuries have limited him to 51 games these last two seasons, perhaps accounting for some of the drop-off. But with the Pelicans, he's entered head-down mode much too often.
Should Holiday's pierce-the-defense mindset compel him to become just as much an off-ball scorer as isolation specialist (might be easier on his knee), the Pelicans will have a top-10 backcourt in place for the future.
8. Brooklyn Nets: Deron Williams and Joe Johnson
Convoys of optimism are following the new-look Brooklyn Nets into next season as they begin life amidst their fellow superteams. Expectations in the backcourt are just as high, almost solely thanks to Deron Williams.
That is, the Deron Williams we saw in the second half of last year.
I'm worried about Joe Johnson, who struggled in a more point guard-centric offense in 2012-13. He's spearheaded isolation-loaded offensive attacks since leaving the Phoenix Suns, and next season he'll have to become more of a glorified shooter alongside so many other weapons.
Should he stave off the (usual) natural regression that comes with age and revert back to his 2004 jump-shot reliant ways, he might be fine.
Fortunately for the Nets, all they really need is a healthy Williams to remain successful in the backcourt. Johnson can skate by on his name alone for another year.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters
Chris Paul 2.0 headlines what should be one of the more dangerous backcourts next season.
Kyrie Irving is already an All-Star and elite-level point guard. If he can stay healthy, three-pointers, crossovers and stylish dimes should abound for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Between Andrew Bynum and Anderson Varejao, he should always have at least one healthy pick-and-roll partner to run with, though I wouldn't be surprised if he's left to fly solo; Varejao and Bynum's health bills toe the line of tragic.
How many rungs up the ladder this twosome climbs largely depends on Dion Waiters' development.
Alongside Bynum and a ball-dominating Irving, he needs to become less of a Rubik's Cube from behind the rainbow. Burying a paltry 31 percent of his three-point attempts isn't going to cut it.
Because Irving can thrive as a spot-up shooter, one-on-one opportunities won't be rendered extinct for the soon-to-be sophomore. In the interest of becoming a more complete (and efficient) scorer, though, he must learn to love catch-and-shoots.
Remember, a more efficient Waiters translates into a more potent backcourt for the Cavs. May he then find the outside touch necessary to complement Chris Pa—I mean Irving.
6. Houston Rockets: James Harden and Jeremy Lin
So we're clear, Jeremy Lin isn't this good; Harden is.
The uber-athletic, forest-sporting Harden has joined the ranks of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, challenging both for rights to the best shooting guard in the league. Right now he's winning.
Defenses become discombobulated when he's attacking the rim. He barrels his way through zones and defenders like mist; defenses just can't touch him. And when he catches fire from the perimeter, the Houston Rockets lay down points like Floyd Mayweather does bets at a casino.
That he's emerged as a top-10 star next to Lin is even more impressive. Not to say Lin is so bad he holds him back; their playing styles just conflict. Both are more comfortable on the ball and neither, Lin especially, is a strong spot-up shooter.
Fielding two ball-dominating guards does, however, have its benefits. Houston is never short on playmaking or dribble penetration. The only thing actually holding these two back is themselves. One of them needs to buckle down as a shooter.
My vote goes to Lin. Harden's clearly the better of the two, and the Rockets' offense would be better off if Lin became more comfortable behind the three-point line—especially knowing Dwight Howard might (foolishly) try to play power forward next season.
5. San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker and Danny Green
It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if Parker and Danny Green clawed their way into the top three by season's end. They're that dynamic.
Save for Paul, Parker is the most complete point guard in the league. The things he can do on offense—penetration, floaters, shooting, pick-and-rolls, etc.—continue to astound me 12 years into his career. Seriously, the ways in which he can score and create for his teammates are endless.
Over the last few years I've grown to appreciate his defense too. Far from a lockdown defender, he seems to have an "on button" when the game is on the line. His lateral quickness instills in me the urge to hum the "Electric Slide," and his sense of spacing when defending point guards who shoot above all else can make life difficult.
His partner in crime, Green, is one of the more overlooked players in the league. Barrages of deep balls in the NBA Finals opened up a few eyes, but not enough. He doesn't just shoot; he defends, and he defends well. Kawhi Leonard deserved most of the credit for the occasions on which he shut down LeBron, but the King wouldn't have struggled early on in the finals without Green's help defense.
Were there an award for the most methodical backcourt in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs would have it sewn up yearly.
Then again, we shouldn't expect anything less from a pair of level-headed talents coached by Gregg Popovich.
4. Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul and J.J. Redick
Please let me explain.
Los Angeles' backcourt scares me, but not for all the right reasons. J.J. Redick is a terrific shooter and creates his own offense at a higher level than most credit him for. But I worry about him transitioning into the role of a starter when he's started just 54 games his entire career.
Maybe he'll emerge as a Jamal Crawford-like utility man, able to start or come off the bench and it won't matter. Or perhaps his mojo will be thrown off by the sudden change. Redick's never played on a team this talented, and the pressure to perform is always greater when you're on a contender.
Paul, on the other hand, is a surefire MVP candidate. Tight handles and X-ray-esque court vision confound opposing defenses. When he wants to, he can do his best Derrick Rose impression as well, scoring in bunches and willing the Clips to victory by himself.
So long as he's holding the reins to the organization, mysterious personnel changes will remain a fixture and, more importantly, the Clippers' backcourt will be amongst the most lethal in the Association.
3. Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson
Buy Splash Brothers stock now before it skyrockets and you're brandished with the dreaded "bandwagoner" label.
Truth be told, it might already be too late. Curry and Klay Thompson have risen through the ranks faster than the hyperbolic Mark Jackson ever could've predicted over the last year.
There isn't a better shooting backcourt in the NBA. Not even close. These two find the bottom of the net from the outside like attempting two-point field-goals is a sin. Curry himself actually converted a higher percentage of his threes (45.3) than he did from the floor overall (45.1).
Beyond long-distance swag, the two complement one another almost perfectly. Curry's playmaking when he's inside the arc is the most underrated part of his game, and Thompson's quick release off his bullets is exceeded (in speed) by only Curry himself.
And although Jackson would smite me for saying this, Curry isn't an elite defender. The Golden State Warriors' wunderkind can move pretty quickly and force turnovers in the passing lane, but I'm not sold on his ability against infiltration-minded point men. Other floor generals seem to seep through his defensive stance and into the paint a lot.
To Thompson's credit, he frequently adjusts his spacing in preparation of such instances. He doesn't hesitate to slide off his man when not on the ball and is a steady source of help defense. Problem is that forces Golden State to rely heavily on defensive rotations to pick up the slack he leaves, which, I would say, were less than superb last season.
Still, on that end Thompson is the Yin to Curry's Yang. The Butch to his Sundance. The pepperoni to his pizza.
You get the point.
2. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash
Time to cauterize any wounds Superman left behind with some encouraging backcourt talk.
Injuries and age could derail the significance behind Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash's pairing, but what other starting lineup includes two future Hall of Fame guards?
Nash is a chameleon and can assume any offensive part he's asked to play. Distributor, spot-up shooter, pick-and-roll catalyst—it doesn't matter. Now that Mike D'Antoni's offense will be run the way it's supposed to, Nash should have no trouble adjusting to a more uptempo style of play.
Remaining healthy is the key for the Black Mamba moving forward, but we can't declare the seemingly ageless shooting guard done. Fully aware of all the physical ailments he's already overcome, we have to assume he'll regain most, if not all, of his on-court composure.
Paired with Nash, the Los Angeles Lakers' backcourt is defined by offensive versatility. They're going to score. And even pass. A lot. What keeps the boys in purple and gold in the playoff picture will be the chemistry that's established between these two.
And there will be chemistry. Their offensive ideals align almost perfectly and, Father Time willing, they're going to be one of the most feared guard cartels there is.
1. Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler
Pinch yourself if you must, but no, you're not dreaming.
The Chicago Bulls' backcourt is the quintessential blend of rising and established stardom. After a season-long hiatus, I can only believe Rose will pick up where he left off...and then some.
Recapturing his previous level of explosiveness may take some time, but even the prospect of a grace period isn't enough to depreciate the value of this union.
Both guards are so athletic it's almost obnoxious. Where Rose is a decent defender, Jimmy Butler locks it down. Where Butler is more passive in looking for his shot, Rose is aggressive and suits up only to make his teammates better. And where Rose struggles to shoot, Butler has morphed into a stark three-point marksman.
I'd say sky's the limit for these two, but 1) I'm told cliches are reserved for coaches, grandmothers and those who hawk motivational podcasts, and 2) that wouldn't do their potential justice.
Rose's current value makes this what it is right now, for sure. Once you stop driveling over his eventual return, though, you're free to realize Butler is a future star.
Because you know the rest of the NBA is.