Ranking the Best Backcourts in the NBA Entering 2014-15 Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 1, 2014

Ranking the Best Backcourts in the NBA Entering 2014-15 Season

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    Dion Waiters and Bradley Beal are beefing, y'all!

    It seems the shooting guards from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards can't see eye to eye on the league's best backcourt. Stunning, huh?

    Per Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com, "Beal told reporters at his team's media day Monday that he and John Wall are 'definitely the best backcourt in the league,'" an assessment with which Waiters disagreed.

    "That's nonsense," Waiters said, per McMenamin. "(Beal is) supposed to say that, but I know deep down, he's not messing with me and Ky (Kyrie Irving). I think me and Ky are the best backcourt, young backcourt. That's all."

    It's a shame we'll never figure out who's right.

    Wait a minute; yes we will. The slideshow was invented for things like this. And also clicks.

    The parameters are these: We're dealing only with starting backcourts, which means depth behind the starters doesn't matter. This is only about point guard-shooting guard combos in the first unit. In addition, this is a prospective look at the 2014-15 season.

    The stats, wins, big shots and complementary styles we've seen from these pairs in the past matter, but only insofar as they inform our beliefs on what they'll do this season.

    Really, there's nothing complicated about this. Just ask yourself which starting backcourt you'd rather have this year.

    Does Beal have a case? Is Waiters off his rocker? Will another duo charge in to send everyone else tumbling down the rankings?

    Let's get to solvin'.

Honorable Mention

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    Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson, Charlotte Hornets

    Kemba Walker has never been an efficient shooter, as his career marks of 39.8 percent from the field and 32.2 percent from long range attest. He's also too small to make a significant impact defensively. But he's aggressive, confident and has shown a knack for taking the big shot.

    Lance Stephenson's defensive versatility and ball-handling skills will help hide many of Walker's weaknesses, so this newly formed duo could complement one another nicely. They're not worthy of a top-10 mention, though.

    Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo, Denver Nuggets

    Another good-but-not-great pair, Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo head into 2014-15 with plenty of question marks.

    The Denver Nuggets hope Lawson steps into a leadership role, but they have to be concerned by his atrocious defense. The Nugs' defensive rating improved a whopping 4.9 points per 100 possessions when he sat last season, per NBA.com.

    Afflalo is coming off a career year that saw his player efficiency rating barely creep above average to 16.0, according to Basketball-Reference. He's a nice player, but we shouldn't get carried away.

    Tony Parker and Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs

    It almost feels wrong to talk about individual players on the San Antonio Spurs, so driven by system are the defending champs.

    Tony Parker is one of the best players in basketball, and he fills an integral role on the league's best team. But he doesn't play a whole lot, which means his statistical value takes a hit.

    That's not his fault; it's just the way the Spurs handle minutes.

    Danny Green is today's prototypical three-and-D wing. And if you're having doubts about including these two—neither of whom averaged more than 30 minutes per game last year—as honorable mentions, just remember that they're good enough for Gregg Popovich.

    Which means they should certainly be good enough for you.

10. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Turns out Waiters was off by just a hair when he said he and Irving were the best backcourt in the league.

    That's OK; I'd be suffering from overconfidence if my team had just added LeBron James and Kevin Love too. We can't judge Waiters for a little youthful exuberance.

    We can, however, judge him for failing to defend and an unwillingness to move the ball within a system. Granted, the Cleveland Cavaliers didn't have much structure a year ago, but Waiters' shoot-first mentality occasionally bordered on obscene.

    If he were more than a 43.3 percent shooter from the field, that might not have been an issue. But Waiters, to this point, has looked very much like a J.R. Smith clone (minus the pretty form and spot-up accuracy).

    Irving is unquestionably talented, and he may be the best ball-handler in the game. If James' influence forces him to develop on defense, he could improve enough to make this ranking look comically low by season's end. But like Waiters, Irving doesn't always display the best vision.

    He constantly missed open shooters and cutters in transition during the FIBA World Cup in Spain, which was mildly alarming for those hoping Irving would defer more readily when surrounded by elite teammates. Of course, those shortcomings didn't stop him from winning tournament MVP, so it's hard to be too critical.

    Given time, these two will climb the rankings. For now, both Waiters and Irving are very promising, unfinished products with significant weaknesses.

9. Patrick Beverley and James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Patrick Beverley and James Harden get the edge over Irving and Waiters for two key reasons.

    First, Harden is as complete an offensive player as there is in the NBA. He's ridiculously efficient because of his refusal to take low-percentage shots and unparalleled ability to draw contact. It's not uncommon for Harden to post a 2-of-10 effort from the field and still be rightly considered to have performed efficiently.

    Hitting 10 foul shots, which Harden did in 23 of 73 games last year, is a good way to do that.

    Second, Beverley might be the best defensive point guard on this list.

    Though he lacks the size you might think necessary to guard larger opponents, Beverley more than makes up for it with raw intensity and aggression.

    A decent spot-up threat, he's converted on at least 36 percent of his triples in each of the past two seasons, making him just good enough to have value on offense.

    If you could take a little of Harden's offense and trade it to Beverley for some D, you'd have a pair that would rank in the top five here. Unfortunately, they're both a little too one-dimensional to rate higher than ninth.

8. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

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    Kyle Lowry is exceptionally competitive on both ends, a legitimate team leader and the unquestioned heart of the Toronto Raptors. He should have been an All-Star last season, and we should expect him to see that oversight corrected in 2014-15.

    His counterpart, DeMar DeRozan, actually got the All-Star spot that should have gone to Lowry. An official All-Star alongside one who should have made the roster? On the surface, it seems like this duo should be higher.

    DeRozan averaged 22.7 points per game last year, and he teamed with Lowry to lead the Raps into the playoffs after a midseason trade shook up the team's core. Those are good things, right?

    The problem, though, is DeRozan's gaudy scoring average is the product of a low-efficiency game that screams unsustainability.

    He took 5.6 jumpers off the dribble last year, hitting just 36.1 percent of them, according to SportVU data provided to NBA.com. No player who attempted that many pull-up shots connected on a lower percentage. From long distance, DeRozan hit just 30.5 percent of his shots.

    An ability to get to the line (eight trips per game) offset that inefficiency a bit, but DeRozan remains something of an overvalued commodity nonetheless.

7. Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers

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    This one feels risky, mainly because Wesley Matthews' understated excellence isn't widely appreciated.

    We all know Damian Lillard is a scoring stud who poses a threat the moment he gets within 25 feet of the bucket. His big-shot credentials are beyond reproach (just ask the Rockets), and there's a good chance that with some defensive strides, Lillard will soon be considered among the game's elite point guards.

    Matthews is no slouch either.

    He's a knockdown three-point sniper who drilled 39.3 percent of his triples last year. Efficiency met volume as well; Matthews' 511 attempts ranked fourth in the league. He possesses a sneaky post game that punishes opponents with remarkable strength as well.

    And on defense, Matthews is as hard-nosed and wily as any wing in the league. Capable of guarding either wing spot (and power forwards in a pinch), the 6'5" guard's D was a major asset to a Portland Trail Blazers team that won 54 games and a playoff series last year.

    Most of all, he's an ideal partner for Lillard, whose skills as a penetrator and defensive attention-grabber result in open looks galore for teammates—looks Matthews capitalized on en masse last year.

    This duo is already great, and we should expect it to get even better in 2014-15.

6. Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The caveat here is that we're assuming Reggie Jackson starts alongside Russell Westbrook this season, something Jackson wants, as mentioned at the team's media day (via Daily Thunder), but head coach Scott Brooks has not yet committed to.

    These two represent an unusual combination—one boasting ridiculous athleticism and competitiveness but also one whose skills are somewhat duplicative. If you really think about it, Jackson is kind of like an eight-out-of-10 version of Westbrook.

    Both are excellent penetrators, both play with tons of pace and both are questionable threats from the perimeter. Last year, Jackson reached a career high from long distance but still shot just 33.9 percent.

    Westbrook hit 31.8 percent of his triples in 2013-14.

    Despite their overlapping skills (both are essentially combo guards), Westbrook and Jackson might be the most physically frightening duo on this list—at least as far as defenders are concerned. Westbrook plays with an animalistic ferocity that no opponent can match over an entire game, and Jackson has a similarly feral quality at times.

    You get the sense practice battles between these two are heated affairs.

5. Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

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    You can't make a prediction about Derrick Rose that isn't risky.

    Two lost years and a FIBA performance best described as a mixed bag don't exactly inspire confidence that the Rose we'll see this season is the same MVP-winning talent we watched four years ago.

    Nonetheless, Rose has proved he's healthy, and even if he only reaches something like 90 percent of his previous productivity this year (an optimistic estimate, I know), he'll be an All-Star and probable member of an All-NBA team.

    Like Westbrook, Rose plays with unabashed aggression at all times. The difference is he marries real point guard instincts to his physical style. Where Westbrook frequently spins out of control in search of his own offense, Rose's reckless forays into the lane are designed to set up teammates as often as they're meant to find his own shots.

    Jimmy Butler, despite a troubling decline in his three-point shooting last season, remains an exceptionally valuable wing because of his defense and willingness to play within a scheme.

    Rarely one to force the issue, Butler has become emblematic of the Chicago Bulls' system-first approach. That's an impressive testament to his basketball IQ, as most players with Butler's remarkable size and athleticism would grow frustrated with Tom Thibodeau's emphasis on structure and grit.

    An elite defender at either wing spot, Butler gives the Bulls one of the game's best stoppers. Because defense is still unfortunately viewed as less valuable than offense in the NBA, he doesn't get nearly enough credit for his contributions.

    Here, we're acknowledging his worth.

    Rose and Butler are a dream combination, and the only reason they rank this low is the uncertainty surrounding D-Rose's health.

4. John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

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    This officially settles it: Neither Beal nor Waiters was right.

    The Wizards' backcourt checks in at No. 4, beating out a number of excellent duos but still falling short of the top three. Even factoring in improvement for the youthful Wall and Beal, it just seems a bit too early to rank them any higher.

    Wall improved his shooting last season, but not to the degree everyone seems to think. Though he shot 35.1 percent on 308 attempts from distance last year, crushing his 2012-13 numbers of 26.7 percent on only 45 attempts, the net improvement in his overall shooting accuracy was minimal.

    His true shooting percentage went from 52.1 percent in 2012-13 to 52.4 percent in 2013-14, per Basketball-Reference. His win shares per 48 minutes actually declined.

    That's the end of the knocks on Wall, though, and he should get credit for sustaining his productivity while taking on an even bigger role for a team that improved dramatically. Washington and the postseason haven't been synonymous for a long time, but thanks largely to Wall, they were last year.

    Beal is an exceptionally promising talent, a terrific shooter with a pure stroke and an emerging off-the-dribble game. There's little doubt he'll mature into one of the league's better off guards eventually. But at 21, Beal has a ways to go yet.

    His PER was a below-average 14.3 last year, per Basketball-Reference, and for all the promise his shooting form offers from long range, he still converted on just 41.9 percent of his attempts from the field a year ago.

    Beal may yet be proved correct in his belief the Wiz have the NBA's best backcourt. It just won't happen this season.

3. Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Before we go any further, we have to agree on something: Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA.

    It shouldn't be hard to reach an accord on that issue, as Paul has made the All-NBA First Team in each of the last three seasons.

    Per Amin Elhassan of ESPN:

    In case you've been living under a rock, he's this generation's model of how to play point: excellent distributor, controller of game tempo, terrific penetration and finishing skills, deadly pull-up game, outstanding vision, elite IQ, vicious on-ball defense, clutch-time heroics, etc.

    If you're still unconvinced, we can still be friends. But you're not going to agree with this ranking.

    That's because it's very difficult to make the case that J.J. Redick, Paul's backcourt buddy, is anything more than a slightly above-average shooting guard. Make no mistake, Paul is carrying the load here.

    Redick is a good defender, an elite shooter and can operate a pick-and-roll far better than you'd expect. He'll never wow anyone with his athleticism, and his offensive opportunities come almost entirely via setups from teammates.

    He is not a star.

    But he's very, very good at what he does, and he complements Paul perfectly. Redick knows how to find open space, and he understands how to draw defenders so CP3 can more easily reach his beloved elbows on offense.

    In addition, Redick has phenomenal hair. Just look at it.

    You can't argue with the way these two fit together, and if it weren't for the small sample of their shared time on the court last year (just 531 minutes), they might even rank higher.

2. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns

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    Last season, Goran Dragic shot 50.5 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from beyond the arc, which put him in a very exclusive club among NBA guards.

    Which is to say he was the only one in it, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    Wall, Lillard, Irving, Lowry and Beverley all posted lower PERs than Dragic in 2013-14, and neither Westbrook nor Rose played enough games to qualify. And while the fact that Phoenix didn't make the postseason might seem like a handy argument to leverage against him, Dragic should actually get credit for leading his team to as many wins (48) as Lowry (48) and more than Wall (44).

    Dragic piled up those victories in the West, inarguably the superior conference.

    There are no two ways about it: Dragic was a monster last season, and he's in the middle of his prime. Expect nothing less in 2014-15.

    Eric Bledsoe only gave us half a year to judge him, but it's safe to say we got enough information to conclude he's a borderline superstar in his own right. The Phoenix Suns obviously agree, as evidenced by the $70 million commitment they made to Bledsoe in September.

    E-Bled is a physical marvel, brutally strong and lightning-fast in the open floor. He combines the speed of Wall with the bowling-ball battering power of Lowry. And his only defensive peer on this list (among point guards) is Beverley.

    This duo is the future, as both are perfectly comfortable handling the rock and attacking off the ball. They undo most of the NBA's best-laid defensive plans.

    But they're not No. 1.

1. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

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    Leave it to Stephen Curry to add some perspective on the back-and-forth backcourt bluster, per Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:

    What was (Beal) supposed to say? I would have said the same thing (about us). It was just like the thing with LeBron this summer. What are you supposed to say? I would say we’re the best backcourt. He’s going to say it. Russell (Westbrook) said he was the best PG yesterday. Everybody has got to be confident. If he would have said he had the second-best backcourt in the league, I probably would have gone over there and ragged on him all day.

    The key difference between Curry saying he and Klay Thompson are the league's best backcourt and Beal saying the same about himself and Wall is this: Curry's statement has a ton of support.

    Diamond Leung of the San Jose Mercury News tweeted: "Jerry West said the Warriors have the best backcourt."

    Boom. Debate settled.

    Oh, sure, we can go deeper than one-off claims.

    Curry is the NBA's best active shooter and possibly its best ever. Conventional defense fails against him because of his willingness to shoot off the dribble from anywhere. And among players who attempted at least five off-the-bounce shots last year, Curry's 43.7 percent accuracy rate was tops, per NBA.com.

    In his brief career, Curry has made 905 threes. In the entire history of the league, no player who has made that many career triples has done so as efficiently as Curry, whose career three-point percentage of 44 tops that of every high-volume sniper in league history, per Basketball-Reference.

    Put simply, he presents a problem defenses have never seen before—one they're nowhere close to solving.

    Thompson is among the game's best wing defenders, and he shields Curry from the league's toughest matchups. Tony Parker? Chris Paul? Russell Westbrook?

    Thompson guards them all, sparing Curry from the fatigue of checking such imposing foes.

    Not to mention, Klay is an historically excellent shooter in his own right. Nobody in league history has made more triples in his first three seasons than Thompson, who has knocked down his 545 bombs at a 41 percent clip.

    And as his stint with Team USA in Spain showed, Thompson is rounding out his game as a passer and penetrator.

    He and Curry will be the NBA's top backcourt in 2014-15.