Ranking the Top 5 Young Backcourts in the NBA
It's a young man's world, and these budding NBA backcourt buddies are ready to prove it.
Stephen Curry still gets carded at restaurants, which makes his disqualification from our list of the NBA's best young backcourts feel wrong. Baby-faced as the Golden State Warriors' superstar is, his 26 years on Planet Earth mean he and Klay Thompson don't qualify for our (admittedly arbitrary) under-25 cutoff.
Them's the rules, though: Both players involved must be 25 or under to qualify here.
The age cutoff means some of the usual suspects won't make the list. Sincerest apologies to Goran Dragic, 28, and Eric Bledsoe of the Phoenix Suns as well.
We could have stretched things to include Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, both of whom make the age cut, but we're looking for starting pairs here. Besides, we don't yet know how well or how often Bledsoe and IT2 will play together.
Likewise, James Harden has Patrick Beverley's 26th birthday to thank for his exclusion.
The strict parameters leave us with a field of very young, very talented players—many of whom could be ready for a massive leap in the 2014-15 season. Projected growth will be a significant factor, but the statistics from these players' 2013-14 efforts will also weigh heavily into the rankings.
In an effort to remove as much statistical noise as possible, we'll place an emphasis on each player's individual efficiency rating along with the PER he allowed to opponents at his position.
Don't worry if you're not into numbers; chemistry and gut feel (not to mention the eye test) will also factor in.
Honorable Mention: Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Full disclosure: It took some serious restraint to keep Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler out of the top spot in these rankings.
Upon getting over the shock that Rose is still just 25 (until October 4, anyway), the subsequent dive into the statistics revealed he and Jimmy Butler to be head and shoulders above the rest of their youthful competition by some key statistical measures.
Granted, the stats for Rose had to come from all the way back in 2011-12, the last season in which he played a significant number of games. But when you take Rose's production from that year and combine it with what Butler did last season (a down year for the 24-year-old shooting guard, by the way), you get a staggering picture of statistical dominance.
Rose posted a PER of 23.0 in 2011-12 which, when combined with Butler's 13.5 from 2013-14, adds up to a cumulative total of 36.5. That's not an absurdly high figure on its own; the top-ranking duo on our list racked up a 40.1.
But when combined with the fact that Rose and Butler both held their opposing positional matchups to combined PERs of 22.0, you get a net positive total of plus-14.5. For reference, the next-highest total for a pairing on this list was plus-6.7.
Numbers aside, Rose is the only guy in these rankings (spoiler alert!) who has an MVP trophy. And Butler is one of the top defensive wings in the league. If we assume good health, there's probably not another backcourt in the NBA that opponents will fear more this coming season. Between Rose's nonstop attacking and Butler's rangy D, these guys are a terror to face.
The sheer uncertainty surrounding how Rose will perform this season, along with the technicality that he'll actually turn 26 in training camp, kept the Chicago Bulls backcourt confined to the honorable mention section.
But we were perilously close to shaking up the rankings in a big way because of these two.
5. Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon, New Orleans Pelicans
OK, hear me out.
Eric Gordon has been a pretty major disappointment during his time with the New Orleans Pelicans. He's battled injuries, hasn't been as productive as his days with the Los Angeles Clippers and was pretty severely outplayed by Tyreke Evans last season.
In fact, if we could fudge the positional designations a bit, Evans would pair with Jrue Holiday to comprise a younger, more effective backcourt than the one featuring Gordon.
But rules are rules, and Gordon logged 78 percent of his minutes last year at the off guard, per 82games.com, so he's the guy Holiday is stuck with.
Gordon's PER of 14.9 was almost perfectly average in 2013-14, and his PER allowed of 15.6 meant opposing shooting guards narrowly outproduced him. But he hit 39.1 percent of his threes, posted a career low with 2.1 turnovers per game and logged 64 contests—the most he'd played since 2008-09.
With his 26th birthday a full four months away and a bothersome knee injury now three years behind him, it's not crazy to expect a career year for Gordon.
Holiday is a terrific on-ball defender who lost most of last season to injury. In the 34 games he played, though, the point guard was terrific. Holiday tied or bettered career highs in field-goal percentage, PER and assist percentage, per Basketball-Reference.
There are unresolved chemistry questions here, as Holiday and Gordon posted a negative net rating in 31 games together last year, per NBA.com. It's worth noting, though, that the minus-0.7 points per 100 possessions they logged together was better than the Pellies' overall figure of minus-2.6.
New Orleans is everybody's favorite sleeper pick this year, a squad with young talent and a real chance to crack the playoff race in the crowded Western Conference. Holiday and Gordon have plenty to prove, but the skill is there. Now, it's just a matter of getting it to mesh.
4. Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson, Charlotte Hornets
It takes a bit of guesswork, but the new and untested tandem of Kemba Walker, 24, and Lance Stephenson, 23, figures to be one of the league's best this season.
In town on a three-year deal, Stephenson brings playmaking and proven defensive chops to the shooting guard spot. He held opposing 2s to a PER of 11.0 last season, and he's good enough on the ball to handle even some of the league's quicker point guards.
Walker is a shoot-first player who struggled to score efficiently last year. And while that might seem like a problem, the 24-year-old also pumped up his assist rate to a career-high level and knocked down more threes than in either of his previous two seasons. On balance, last season was Walker's best.
Stephenson will make things easier on Walker not just because he'll allow the undersized point man to hide on D, but also because he'll share the ball-handling load. Last season, Walker averaged 100.3 touches per game, the highest figure in the entire league, per SportVU data provided to NBA.com.
That's both a sign of trust in his capabilities as a facilitator and a statement on the lack of legitimate distributors elsewhere on the roster—especially in the backcourt. The upshot of that statistic was that Walker took a lot of tough attempts with the shot clock winding down last season because, well...he always wound up with the ball.
Stephenson can shoulder some of those duties, freeing up his teammate to play away from the ball and, perhaps, improve his shooting efficiency.
Charlotte lost Josh McRoberts to the Miami Heat, which means Stephenson's ball-handling will be even more critical. Everything Born Ready does well should help bring out the best in Walker.
Plus, the Hornets have gone their entire franchise history without once seeing a player blow in an opponent's ear. Get ready for that to change.
3. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers
If Kyrie Irving explodes in his age-22 season, pairing his unparalleled handle with better shooting efficiency and, fingers crossed, just a little defense, this ranking is going to look pretty low—even if Dion Waiters, also 22, fails to make much progress next season.
Such is the potential of Irving.
That's not to say Waiters is without his own considerable upside. The scoring guard was nearly as tough to stay in front of as Irving was (SportVU credited him with 7.3 drives per game last season, more than any other Cleveland Cavaliers player), per NBA.com.
With LeBron James and Kevin Love helping to space the floor, we should expect Waiters to get into the lane with nearly league-leading regularity. Free throws will come in bunches, and when defenders give him extra space out of fear, his better-than-you-think spot-up accuracy will make them pay.
It's still far too soon to say Waiters will mature into anything like Dwyane Wade 2.0, but his youth means we probably shouldn't rule anything out just yet.
If both Irving and Waiters only improve on defense and maintain their 2013-14 levels of offensive production, they'll be fantastic. We could have expected that kind of growth under any circumstances, but with James in town and the expectations accordingly elevated, there'll be real motivation for these two to make leaps.
And all that pressure Irving once toiled under? That's gone, according to B/R's Zach Buckley:
Three years into his NBA career, Irving now has the chance that should have been initially afforded to him. He doesn't have to be a savior, just a productive piece of a puzzle that no longer starts and stops with him.
On the floor, he'll no longer face the pressure as the top item on an opposing team's game plan. Off the floor, he might benefit even more from the attention James will attract.
Irving and Waiters aren't just the youngest duo on this list, they're also the ones with the most to prove. If they take advantage of a terrific situation, they could headline this list and nose their way into the discussion of the league's best overall backcourts, regardless of age.
2. John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Most of what you just read about Irving and Waiters also applies to John Wall, 23, and Bradley Beal, 21.
Both are still very young, and so still developing. The Washington Wizards duo, like the Cavs pair, must also strive to improve shooting efficiency and defense. And before the indignant Beal supporters laud his perimeter accuracy, it's important to note that he wasn't actually any better than Waiters last year.
Their effective field-goal percentages (which account for threes) were identical. And Waiters' ability to get to the foul line gave him a narrow (.508 to .507) edge in true shooting percentage, per Basketball-Reference.
More than anything, we've seen Wall and Beal lead their team to the postseason—a feat the Irving and Waiters have yet to achieve with the Cavs. And even if Cleveland reaches the playoffs this season, we won't be able to attribute it to the team's backcourt.
Some LeBron guy will probably get the credit for that.
There's a beautiful synergy between Wall and Beal as well. The former is a brilliant ball-handler who creates havoc in transition and has a real knack for finding open shooters in the corner. Beal, still mostly a catch-and-fire player at this stage (though he's improving as a pick-and-roll ball-handler), benefits from the uncontested looks Wall's forays into the lane create.
In terms of complementary skills, it's hard to top these two.
Per a tweet from Ben Standig of CSNWashington.com, Wall responded "Not in my opinion" when asked if there was a better backcourt in the NBA.
A few duos excluded from this list by age have a strong case against Wall on that point. But among younger pairs, only one has the talent and statistical production to prove him wrong.
1. Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder
If this seems crazy at first, don't worry. There's a perfectly good explanation for Russell Westbrook, 25, and Reggie Jackson, 24, topping the list.
Actually, there's more than one perfectly good explanation.
The first is that Westbrook is, by far, the best player in these rankings. He's an undisputed top-10 talent who proved he was fully healthy with some vintage playoff performances for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. He is the nightmare matchup of all nightmare matchups, and the difference between his 2013-14 PER (24.7) and the one he allowed opposing point guards to accumulate (16.3) is greater than any player mentioned to this point.
Baseball analytics guru Bill James once made the argument that the "Babe Ruth Family" could be included among the best baseball families of all time (alongside names like Bonds, Alou, Alomar and DiMaggio, all of whom had multiple members in the majors) on the strength of Ruth's greatness alone. It was a hyperbolic point, but one that touches on the reason Westbrook and Jackson top these rankings.
Nobody ever said each backcourt player's contributions had to be equal, and Westbrook is just that good. Pair him with a folding chair (as long as said chair is 25 or younger), and you've got a nice backcourt duo.
It's not like Jackson is any kind of slouch, though.
There were six players who averaged at least 16 points, four rebounds and five assists per 36 minutes while hitting at least 33 percent of their triples last season, per Basketball-Reference: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry, Manu Ginobili, Eric Bledsoe and Jackson.
That's elite company.
We also have some intriguing evidence that these two, good as they are on their own, are flat-out awesome together. The sample is small, but in 395 minutes on the court over 41 games last season, Jackson and Westbrook utterly dominated the competition, posting a net rating of plus-17.8, per NBA.com.
Thabo Sefolosha's departure means there's an opening at the starting off guard spot, and there's little reason to doubt Jackson will take that opportunity and run with it.
The NBA is moving toward dual-guard sets that feature two players who can score and facilitate. Jackson and Westbrook would fit that trend perfectly.
Maybe the over-reliance on Westbrook bothers you, and maybe you're not convinced by the gaudy net rating that statistically proves OKC's duo is the best young backcourt in the league.
That's fine. But ask yourself this: If you had to bet your life on one of these backcourts getting your team to the Finals—factoring in performance, injury risk and everything else—wouldn't you take Westbrook and Jackson over the others in a heartbeat?