Ranking James Harden with Best Shooting Guards in the NBA

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2012

Ranking James Harden with Best Shooting Guards in the NBA

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    It didn't take long for James Harden to prove what he could do as the go-to guy. If his 37-point debut didn't sell you on his potential as a franchise player, the 45-point encore probably did.

    Where does he go from there? How about a halftime explosion of an order we haven't seen since 2005 (via Tom Haberstroh):

    Last time someone did 30-5-5 by halftime like James Harden did? Allen Iverson, 4/6/05 vs. CHA. Ended up with 48-8-7.

    — Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) December 9, 2012

    O.J. Mayo and the Dallas Mavericks may have ended up with the last laugh in this particular meeting, but Harden made a point all the same. 

    He can score with the very best of them, and his early-season eye-openers were no fluke. In fact, they've become something of a habit according to ESPN Stats & Info:

    James Harden: 5th game this season with 30+ points -- he has 30 ... at halftime for @houstonrockets

    — ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 9, 2012

    So maybe he's earned the right to be considered one of the very best at his position, maybe even the best?

    Not so fast. Here's how Harden really stacks up against the NBA's top 2-guards.

Honorable Mention

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    Eric Gordon, New Orleans Hornets

    Ordinarily, Gordon would easily rank as one of the best at his position. Unfortunately, we just haven't seen enough of him lately. Until he gets back on the floor, ranking him is a lost cause. We know he'll still be good, but how good?

    Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers

    The instant offense Crawford brings to the table has made him an ideal sixth-man option throughout his career, and he hasn't disappointed with the Clippers. He'll catch and shoot, put it up off the dribble and has a solid mid-range game in addition to range.

    If it involves shooting, Crawford's your man.

    Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

    The same goes for Thompson, a catch-and-release specialist who can (and does) hit from anywhere. If he adds some strength and becomes a bit more of a playmaker, the Warriors could have quite the All-Star backcourt in a year or two's time.

    At worst, he'll remain quite a scorer, kind of like...

    Kevin Martin, Oklahoma City Thunder

    No, Martin doesn't bring all the same things Harden brings to the table, but that may be just as well for a Thunder team that already has a wealth of versatile talent. Martin is a modern-day, poor man's version of Reggie Miller.

    Of course, that's not so bad.

    Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks

    Were he healthy, Shumpert may well have made a case for inclusion in the top 10. For now, we'll just have to imagine what his sophomore campaign would have looked like in full.

    I'm guessing, pretty good.

    He's an exceptional athlete with a commitment to actually playing top-shelf defense. He can shoot, too, and he'll become even more consistent on that front.

    Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers

    Matthews is a forgotten starter on a forgotten team, but there's a good argument he belongs in this top 10 as well. He makes threes, he slashes, he finishes, and—yes—he defends.

    As of yet, he hasn't become the kind of player who'll take over games. What Matthews lacks in star-power, he makes up for in steadiness.

10. Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

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    There's a school of thought that says Arron Afflalo just looks better this season because he's on a worse team, a roster without the wing depth he shared time with in Denver.

    It's hard to see why we should count that against him, though. With greater opportunity, players do tend to shine. Though he's pushed his average a point ahead of the 15.2 he averaged with the Nuggets last season, this is the same Afflalo.

    He was probably a top-10 shooting guard last season, too.

    Afflalo will never be the dynamic playmaker that sets the NBA elite apart from all the rest, but he's a very good all-around player. His defense is just as valuable as anything he's doing on the offensive end.

    Except, maybe, for when he drops 30 points on the L.A. Lakers, like he did in November.

    That's pretty valuable, too. All told, he's almost certainly the most valuable player on the Orlando Magic. Before you say, "...for whatever that's worth," remember that this team is already performing far better than anyone expected it to.

    Afflalo has had a little something to do with that.

9. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings

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    There's still a very real chance Tyreke Evans could deliver on all that promise he displayed in an exceptional rookie season.

    If this season ended today, though, Evans' scoring average would have declined in each of his first four seasons—to the fairly unremarkable 15.5 points he's posting thus far.

    In fairness, his minutes and field-goal attempts have also seen a decline. It's not as if he's become less efficient, even if he's often looked a bit less explosive. Injuries and position changes have frustrated Evans' early development, so we can't come down too hard on him.

    When he does do something worth watching, only the handful of Kings fans in denial about losing a franchise take notice.

    That's a shame. Few can go end-to-end like Evans, and he's the kind of playmaker who could really thrive amidst a more veteran roster. Maybe the Kings will become that roster. The question is whether Evans will still be along for the ride.

8. Paul George, Indiana Pacers

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    Since when were shooting guards built like this guy?

    Eventually, you'd have to think Paul George will settle into a small-forward role on account of his length. For now, though, the Indiana Pacers have Danny Granger at the position and one of the league's very longest wing tandems as a result.

    With Granger starting the 2012-13 season on the injured list, George has made the most of the extra minutes and shots, raising his scoring average by over three points a game. 

    George isn't a superstar just yet, but he's shown those occasional flashes that have been known to raise an eyebrow, like his recent explosion against the Chicago Bulls (via ESPN's Nick Friedell):

    Paul George is on a different level tonight. He has been awesome. 34 points for the Pacers and is showing no fear.

    — Nick Friedell (@ESPNChiBulls) December 5, 2012

    Before that, George broke the Pacers' record for most three-pointers in a game with nine, one more than previous record-holder Reggie Miller.

    George isn't just another perimeter shooter or flashy dunker, though (as if we really need anything more than that). He bothers shots and passing lanes alike, qualifying as one of those special players who can start and finish a fast break with equal style.

7. Monta Ellis, Milwaukee Bucks

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    There's something that never quite sits right when it comes to thinking of Monta Ellis as a shooting guard. Does that mean we have to include guys like Lou Williams who blur the lines between the two guard positions, shuttling back and forth between roles so effortlessly?

    It's one of those things about which good people will disagree.

    But, we do know this about Ellis: He's played quite well with two point guards, and it helps that they're certain kinds of point guards—namely the variety that can spot up and shoot, making the most of Ellis' own point-guard-like skills.

    We also know this about him: Ellis is a lethal scorer, capable of creating his own offense in a wide variety of ways. He's quick, he's skilled and he's proved that combo-guards can make it in this league.

    Can he make it to the All-Star Game, though? After winning the NBA's Most Improved Player Award in 2007, Ellis apparently stopped improving.

    Those who've watched him might think otherwise, but the coaches who face him never seem too convinced. They're the ones who vote for those All-Star second units to which Ellis is never selected.

    Ellis' shooting has suffered this season. He's making just over 21 percent of his 3.4 three-point attempts per game, and that won't get you on many top 10 lists (at least ones you'd want to be on).

    On the other hand, his mid-range game and quickness are still getting him over 18 points a contest. That says something, too: Scorers will always find a way.

    And Ellis is most certainly a scorer.

6. Joe Johnson

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    Joe Johnson isn't worth the almost $20 million he'll make this season, but he's still better than the vast majority of swingmen in this league.

    He's got junk in his game—Paul Pierce kind of junk. He can post up, get guys off their feet with a head-fake and beat more athletic defenders with smart footwork and a nice shooting touch. There's clearly a reason he got that huge contract in the first place.

    It remains to be seen whether Johnson can take his team to a title, and something tells me he can't—even with Deron Williams at the helm of the Brooklyn Nets.

    JJ's easily one of this league's best isolation scorers, but he too often falls in love with the three-pointer. He hasn't remained the decisive, versatile scorer he showed flashes of early in his career with the Hawks. And, he's quiet enough that the paranoid part of you thinks he's either secretly up to no good or just doesn't care that much about basketball—at least when compared to other guys making $20 million.

    The Nets seemed to think they were getting a top-five shooting guard this summer.

    Close, but not quite.

5. Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs

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    Manu Ginobili has settled into an "as-needed" role with Gregg Popovich's deep San Antonio Spurs roster, preserving his postseason availability with a more limited workload during the regular season.

    Don't let the statistical decline fool you. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan may be the focal points of this team's offense, but Manu remains one of the game's great closers. He's capable of taking over at crucial junctures, imposing his will on games when momentum is up for grabs.

    If you find yourself dismissing Ginobili on account of the fact that he's scored 20 points only twice this season (and never more than 20), keep in mind that he did so in 23 and 24-minute appearances. 

    His ability to distribute the ball and run the Spurs' frequently-used pick-and-roll schemes makes him something even more special, something more than a scorer. Ginobili's All-Star days may be over, but how many shooting guards would you rather have handling the rock in the fourth quarter?

4. O.J. Mayo, Dallas Mavericks

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    This isn't a bandwagon thing.

    Believers in O.J. Mayo have suffered through two seasons waiting for Lionel Hollins to let the Juice loose. But, after a promising rookie campaign and equally impressive sophomore effort, the Memphis Grizzlies had other plans for Mayo.

    After the next two seasons of relatively unimpressive sixth-man duty, Mayo is proving he is who we thought he was. It just took the Dallas Mavericks to give him back some minutes and a starting job.

    There will be those who fault Mayo for giving it less than his best on Memphis' bench, but it should go without saying that some guys just need minutes and shots to develop a rhythm. That's not especially controversial, and it doesn't mean Mayo is anything less than a dutiful team player.

    He's also nothing less than a phenomenal shooter, currently making an utterly ridiculous 51 percent of his three-point attempts.

    It would be less ridiculous if he only took the occasional wide-open trey, but he's shooting 5.4 of them per game and operating as the focal point of Dallas' offense.

    It's All-Star time for O.J. Mayo. 

3. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Even if you're skeptical that James Harden can keep doing what he's been doing, there's still no way around acknowledging what he's been doing.

    His 19.98 PER ranks him third among starting shooting guards (fourth if you include Lou Williams, who we're omitting from these rankings), and he's the league's fifth-leading scorer at any position.

    Yes, those numbers should be taken in context. The Houston Rockets desperately need Harden to handle the ball and shoot the ball...and play defense. The beard is most definitely getting a workout this season.

    And yet, Harden's answering the bell in a way few stars could. He'll have a rough shooting game here or there, but he's an absolutely electric scorer and playmaker.

    He combines a strong frame with a Ginobili-like understanding of timing, spacing and footwork—a rare combination that explains in part why Houston was so thrilled to acquire his services. Harden's look isn't the only thing that sets him apart.

    Once the Rockets catch up to Harden—and they will, even if not this season—thinking of him as the third-best shooting guard in the league won't feel so strange. We may even have to start ranking him higher than that.

2. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

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    He's hobbled, scoring less, appearing less relevant by the day.

    And yes, Dwyane Wade is still the second-best shooting guard in the NBA.

    The case for Wade is as simple as it ever was. He scores efficiently, he creates opportunities for his teammates and he plays like he's 6'8". His ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor remains elite, and there's no shooting guard you'd rather have running the open floor.

    Wade has proved the perfect sidekick for LeBron James, and that shouldn't go unnoticed. Kobe Bryant can do a lot of things—including some things Wade can't do—but he wouldn't have done that. He wouldn't have given the Lakers to LeBron.

    Sometimes the greatest players are the ones who know when and how to defer. By that metric, Wade is indeed a rarity.

    He's not quite the greatest 2-guard, though. That title still belongs to Kobe.

1. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Life isn't so simple for Kobe Bryant anymore. He's still the very best at his position, but he may also be part of the problem with the Los Angeles Lakers. 

    Kobe's always made shots that no one should make. But, he's increasingly taken shots that no one should take. Even as his 25.48 PER dwarfs the next best 2-guard (Wade at 20.42), the Lakers have been losing when Kobe goes off this season.

    If you've watched Kobe in fourth quarters over the last couple of years, you've seen him trying so hard to win winnable games by himself. Maybe it has more to do with correlation than causation. Maybe it's because L.A. can't afford to put the ball in Dwight Howard's free-throw-a-phobic hands.

    We should give him the benefit of the doubt. We should live with a few bad shots when he's making so many good ones. He's taking almost four fewer shots per game this season than he did in 2011-12, and making nearly 49 percent of them.

    By the numbers, he's having one of the best seasons he's ever had.

    Don't let the Lakers' struggles fool you. Kobe's not the problem.