Kobe Bryant may wear No. 24, but he's No. 1 in the shooting guard rankings for yet another year. That doesn't mean his crown is safe, though.
Dwyane Wade and James Harden still remain the primary challengers, but there are a few young shooting guards emerging as potential superstars in the near future. They clearly aren't better than the Mamba right now, but it will only be a matter of time before the combination of their progression and the clutches of Father Time start to cause a seismic shift.
Now to be fair, the expectations have to be tempered with Kobe. He's 34 years old and coming off a ruptured Achilles, even if he claims to be shattering the timetable for his recovery.
But let's assume that Kobe experiences a full return to strength and then continues along the path he's laid out for himself. His career has given us no reason to view that as a faulty assumption.
If that's the case, how close are the nearest competitors? Can they pass him by the end of the year?
In terms of an overall evaluation of their skills, Wade and Kobe are remarkably similar. They both play two-way basketball, and they're quite dominant on the offensive end of the court.
However, the difference in defensive play isn't as large as some might lead you to believe. Wade has taken a step backward as a defender as the years have piled up, and Kobe's defensive shortcomings were played up far too much in 2012-13.
While the Mamba is a putrid point-preventer when his man doesn't have the ball, he still plays fantastic on-ball defense. His isolation skills in particular stand out, and they help make up for his proclivity for watching instead of helping and failing to hustle back in transition.
Let's take a look at how Kobe and Wade fared in different individual situations during the last season, as provided by SynergySports (subscription required):
Kobe absolutely dominated Wade as an isolation defender, but he lagged behind in the other categories. Still, his ability in that first category was enough that they allowed the exact same number of points per possession: 0.85, good enough for them to tie for 149th in the NBA.
Wade's off-ball defense admittedly pushes him ahead as an overall defender, but the gap is still narrower than the general perception would lead you to believe. And it's certainly not enough to make up for Kobe's offensive superiority and the difference in roles.
Although Wade shot a much higher percentage from the field—52.1 percent to 46.3 percent—he wasn't that much more efficient shooting the ball. Field-goal percentage is a misleading stat, as it doesn't factor in the type of shots and neglects free-throw performance.
True shooting percentage accounts for two-pointers, three-pointers and free-throws, so it's a much more accurate depiction. Wade finished the 2012-13 campaign with a 57.1 true shooting percentage. Kobe checked in at 57.0.
Once you account for Kobe's play behind the arc and at the charity stripe, there really isn't much of a difference in efficiency, and that allows the Mamba's additional 6.1 points per game to stand out. His extra dimes help as well.
The other key is role within the offense.
Wade is the obvious No. 2 choice in the Miami Heat's system, as everything runs through LeBron James. He isn't the subject of as much defensive attention, and not as much responsibility is heaped upon his shoulders.
The same can't be said for Kobe, who is quite clearly the man in L.A. While this discrepancy doesn't afford Wade as many opportunities to shine, it also allows him to play more efficient basketball and remain at a high level. There are both positives and negatives.
And unless that role changes for Wade, he's doomed to fall short of the top spot. There is no impending takeover in South Beach.
By the end of the 2013-14 season, Harden will emerge as the league's best shooting guard. But that day has not yet arrived.
Once more, it's all about defense.
It's fairly common knowledge just how offensively dominant Harden was during his first season with the Houston Rockets. He was a ridiculously potent pick-and-roll threat, and the combination of his three-point shooting and ability to draw contact while attacking the basket made him one of the most efficient scorers in basketball.
However, he won't be taking many steps forward on offense now that Dwight Howard is patrolling the Houston paint. D12 will demand more touches than Omer Asik, and Harden won't display quite as much ball dominance.
It's defense that was holding back the bearded shooting guard, and it's defense that will allow him to make the next leap.
Harden experienced exactly what happens to most players when they step into more significant offensive roles. He didn't have enough energy to thrive on both ends of the court, and he was asked to use most of it offensively.
That changes in the second year of his tenure with the Rockets, especially now that he has Dwight to help him out offensively, as well as an improved version of Chandler Parsons. And it has to change, because the former Sixth Man of the Year was jaw-droppingly bad on defense.
Here's a comparison to Kobe, once more courtesy of Synergy:
While Harden was a solid isolation defender and thrived against hand-offs (so many small sample size warnings here), the rest of his defense was just awful. It's the reason that the Rockets allowed an extra 4.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, according to Basketball-Reference.
The bearded 2-guard may very well end up being the best offensive player in the NBA. Quite frankly, he's not too far from that elusive title right now.
But it will take a more concerted effort for him to supplant Kobe at the top of the shooting guard rankings, and everything points toward that happening.
History certainly does, as mentioned before. Star players thrust into huge responsibility on offense tend to decline defensively before settling in on both ends of the court, and Harden actually improved. As bad as he was with the Rockets, he was an even worse defender with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The acquisition of Howard should help out Harden as well. Dwight's presence takes so much pressure off the 2-guard's quest to be the unquestioned offensive stud on a nightly basis, and it should allow him to play even more efficiently (scary, huh?) while actually trying on defense.
If anyone has a chance to end Kobe's reign by the end of 2013-14, it's this guy.
While shooting guard is a rather weak position in today's NBA, there are still two more players who could eventually challenge for the crown.
The first is already almost there.
Paul George (assuming you consider him a shooting guard instead of small forward, despite the fact that he played the 3 out of necessity while Danny Granger was injured) enjoyed a remarkable ascent to stardom throughout the 2012-13 season. He emerged as a top-notch defensive player, and his versatile offense was crucial to the Indiana Pacers' success.
However, George still has a long way to go.
Before he can truly become a part of that trinity of shooting guards, he has to do three things:
- Start actually playing shooting guard again. For what it's worth, I'd consider him a primary small forward at this stage of his career.
- Begin hitting three-pointers more effectively, as he shot far too often for a player only hitting 36.2 percent of his attempts from downtown.
- Stop displaying such poor care for the ball. George has to lower his dribble and start looking around in order to prevent turnovers from rearing their ugly head with such high frequency.
George could very well be the class of the position in the future, but we're still a minimum of two years from that happening.
The only other contender currently playing at a high enough level to be considered is Jimmy Butler. Guys like Iman Shumpert, Victor Oladipo and Ben McLemore could eventually get there, but they haven't done enough to earn more than a passing mention right now.
Butler spent a lot of time playing small forward, but he's expected to start at the 2 for the Chicago Bulls going into the 2013-14 campaign. And while it may seem premature to even discuss him here, Butler really was that good during the second half of his sophomore season.
According to Synergy, only 28 players allowed fewer points per possession than Butler's 0.76. And he did that while taking massive strides forward on the offensive end.
Butler averaged 10.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game after the All-Star break, shooting a scorching 47.5 percent from behind the three-point arc. His success carried over into the postseason, where he averaged 13.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists per contest while shooting 40 percent from downtown.
But the offensive improvement was visible to the naked eye as well, even if you don't look at the numbers. He was developing remarkable moves like a step-back fadeaway jumper that resembled a certain member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
It's too soon to include Butler with Kobe, Wade and Harden—or even with George, for that matter—but he's definitely deserving of a little discussion.
He could be challenging Harden for the positional crown in just a few years.