Nothing Wrong with Second Best: NBA's Top No. 2 Options
While notions about fast-paced, jump-shooting, small-ball squads being ill-equipped to win championships now ring hollow, those concerning all-around talent still stand on solid ground. Save for the 2004-05 Detroit Pistons, the league's top teams typically boast no fewer than two stars, at least one of whom can be considered among the game's elite.
But rarely, if ever, can those cornerstones meet at eye level on the court. Stephen Curry is head and shoulders above his Golden State teammates. Not long after LeBron James went to Miami, he found that his talents outpaced those of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were nearly equals, but the Big Diesel was clearly the celestial body around whom that Los Angeles Lakers three-peat revolved.
There's nothing wrong with being Bryant back then, Wade and Bosh a few years back or even the rest of the Warriors now. They all won rings and wound up with plenty of acclaim and cash for their efforts.
Today's NBA may be more talented than it's ever been, which means there may be more dynamic duos—and, thus, more second fiddles—than there have ever been. Here are the 10 best, chosen and ranked based on their individual abilities and importance to their respective squads.
10. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
There might never be a passing of the Washington Wizards' proverbial torch from John Wall to Bradley Beal. The former is already a two-way superstar at the tender age of 25. The latter, meanwhile, will still be coming into his own as Wall digs into the meat of his NBA prime.
That's no knock on Beal. Wall might be the league's fastest player from end to end and has learned to harness that speed like never before.
As for Beal, he's well on his way to becoming the Ray Allen 2.0 for which he was pegged before he set foot in the league.
Through nine games, the St. Louis native posted career highs in points (20.0), field-goal attempts (17), field-goal percentage (.458), three-point percentage (.420), free-throw attempts (2.9), rebounds (4.2) and usage rate (26.3 percent). According to NBA.com, Beal's been better in the pick-and-roll than his backcourt buddy:
Numbers like those will earn Beal plenty of dough in July 2016, when he'll be a restricted free agent. For now, as SB Nation's ThePGPhenomenon wrote, the Wizards won't have to regret their decision, back in 2012, to keep Beal rather than trade for James Harden, given how snug a fit the team has found between its young guards:
If the Wizards want to also go the route of building a championship contenders [sic] with John Wall being the key piece in what they are building around, it simply never made sense to get a shooting guard who demands the ball so much.
Sometimes these decisions that [sic] come down to stats, sometimes it's just basic basketball. Does James Harden really fit John Wall's style of play? I think it's time for us to breathe a sigh of relief and realize we dodged a bullet even if it may have been unintentional.
9. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
If salaries were the sole determinants of NBA roles, LaMarcus Aldridge would already be No. 1 with a bullet in the Alamo City. According to Basketball Insiders, he'll be the highest-paid player in the San Antonio Spurs' stable through 2018-19—barring another pricey signing before then, anyway.
Aldridge may well become Gregg Popovich's go-to guy in due course, but for now, he's learning the ropes behind the 24-year-old Kawhi Leonard.
San Antonio's big catch of the summer is off to one of the slowest starts of his decorated career. So far, he's pulling down his fewest rebounds per game (9.7) since 2012-13, pouring in his fewest points (15.5) since his rookie year and shooting his lowest percentage from the field ever (43.3 percent).
Those numbers figure to trend upward as the 2015-16 campaign crawls along and Aldridge settles into his new digs.
"I think it’s just about playing every game and just being more comfortable out there," the former Portland Trail Blazers All-Star said after the Spurs' 88-83 win over the Dallas Mavericks, per ESPN's Michael C. Wright. "I think I’m getting more comfortable every game."
Added Leonard, per ESPN: "I don’t think he’s playing his best basketball yet. It’s still early in the season, and he’s still trying to get into a flow and learn our plays. I feel like he’s gonna get better."
And when he does, Aldridge could be the one to take the lead in San Antonio.
8. Brandon Knight, Phoenix Suns
Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are more like Options 1 and 1a than the Phoenix Suns' first and second banana. Their statistics through the first month of the 2015-16 season are practically identical:
The fact that they both played one year of college ball under John Calipari at Kentucky doesn't make matters any less confusing. Neither does each player's ability to man either backcourt spot.
But when it comes to the Suns offense, Bledsoe is the more prolific on-ball operator between the two, particularly in the pick-and-roll (per NBA.com):
To be sure, these two young guards go about their business in very different ways. As SB Nation's Tom Ziller described it:
Bledsoe fits easily with Knight, who is best described as a much more modest Kyrie Irving with a huge basketball IQ. Knight has impeccable handling skills and a smooth deep stroke. He's athletic without blowing opponents away like Bledsoe. E.B. will beat opponents with a slick dribble move or a screen and untouchable speed and leaping ability. Knight will do it with flawless footwork.
Phoenix's priorities—as a physical, aggressive ballclub—are most closely aligned with Bledsoe's abilities as a bruising ball-handler. That still leaves plenty of room for Knight to do his thing, albeit as a tremendously talented adjunct to the Suns' "Mini-LeBron."
7. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
It's tough to tell who stirs the Atlanta Hawks' drink these days.
On the one hand, the club's current iteration was built around the all-court talents of Al Horford, who, at 29, is still plenty productive (16.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists).
On the other hand, Jeff Teague, 27, has clearly taken another step forward this season, scoring a career-high 17.1 points while using more of Atlanta's possessions than any other Hawk, be it overall (27.6 percent) or in the clutch (35.2 percent), per NBA.com.
Either way, Paul Millsap has been a strong second-in-command in Atlanta. He leads the Hawks in points (18.5), rebounds (9.4) and PER (23.4, per Basketball-Reference.com) and is poised to play in his third All-Star Game in as many seasons in Georgia.
Though his 31st birthday's approaching in February, Millsap's best basketball might still be ahead of him.
"His physicality and his work on the boards. Just different parts of the game I think he's taken a step forward and is better: Some of his finishing, his passing," Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said (via Fox Sports' Zach Dillard). "Those things, I actually—I don't want to put too much pressure—I semi-expect. He's so good."
He's certainly good enough to keep Atlanta among the top non-Cleveland contenders in an improving Eastern Conference.
6. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Mike Conley has the goods to be the Memphis Grizzlies' best player. He already leads the team in points (15.6), assists (6.4) and PER (19.9).
If he returns to Memphis via free agency next summer, Conley will likely do so as the organization's highest-paid player. Marc Gasol, long the B.M.O.C. on Beale Street, is already doing his part, however indirectly, to convince Conley to stay, just as the point guard did for the All-Star center this past July.
"I’m going to let him do the same thing [let him make his own decision]," Gasol told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix. "I’m going to work my butt off, though, so he thinks this is the right place for him."
If Gasol is the one now playing the part of subtle recruiter, doesn't that put Conley in pole position in the Music City?
Not quite. On the whole, the Grizzlies are still a squad fashioned in Gasol's image, not Conley's. After all, if Memphis were built around Conley, a speedster who looked up to the lightning-quick Gary Payton during his younger years, would the team be grinding away at the ninth-slowest pace in the NBA?
That could change in the years to come, but only if Conley decides to stick with the only organization he's known since leaving Ohio State in 2007.
5. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors aren't short on superb sidekicks for Stephen Curry.
Klay Thompson was an All-Star last season. Andrew Bogut was, too, once upon a time. Andre Iguodala was the 2015 NBA Finals MVP. Harrison Barnes is shooting like someone who's gunning for a spot in the 50-40-90 club.
But no one among Curry's cohort has been as good this season as Draymond Green. Golden State's $85 million man has put his money where his mouth is, to the tune of 12.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.5 combined steals and blocks and shooting splits of .484/.435/.800.
More important than the individual numbers, though, is what Green does for the Warriors as a whole. According to NBA.com, Golden State is 13.4 points per 100 possessions better with Green on the floor compared to when he's on the bench.
And it's Green's unique versatility, as a jack-of-all-trades on offense and a 1-through-5 menace on defense, that allows the Warriors to truly demolish the league. Golden State's primary small-ball lineup, with the 6'7" Green at center, practically won them the title last season and has torn apart the league by 71.1 points per 100 possession through the first month of 2015-16, per NBA.com.
"That's why Draymond Green is one of the most important players in the league," former Phoenix Suns head coach Mike D'Antoni told ESPN's Zach Lowe.
In Golden State's case, Green is no worse than the second-most important.
4. Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
So long as the Miami Heat play in Wade County, Chris Bosh will be sous chef to the team's No. 3. Even at 33, Dwyane Wade leads the Heat in field-goal attempts (15.5 per game) and usage rate (30.8 percent)—the latter by a wide margin.
In some respects, Bosh is now the undercard among Miami's frontcourt. Hassan Whiteside is top on South Beach in rebounds (11.2 per game), field-goal percentage (.619) and PER (27) and paces the entire Association in blocks (4.7 per game).
But when it comes to versatility, Bosh, who hits threes at a 37.3 percent clip, owns the paint-bound Whiteside. And when it comes to overall scoring, Bosh, with his 17.3 points, is on track to top the Heat in that regard for the first time in six seasons.
This, after a brush with blood clots that cost him the second half of 2014-15 and, if left untreated, could've cost him his life.
"Thankful to be alive, man," Bosh said, per the Miami Herald's Manny Navarro. "Shoot, everybody doesn’t get to see it. I’ve seen guys that have passed from that same situation. So, what it means, I have no idea. I just know I’m lucky, and I’m glad to be here."
Presumably, regardless of who—between himself, Wade, Whiteside and Goran Dragic—gets the lion's share of the credit for Miami's strong start.
3. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
In the earliest days of the 2015-16 season, LeBron James made it clear Kevin Love would have a much-bigger part to play in the Cleveland Cavaliers' success this time around.
"We'll use Kevin however he wants to be used," James said after a 30-point pounding of the Memphis Grizzlies Oct. 28, per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon. "I told you Kevin is going to be our main focus. He's going to have a hell of a season. He's going to get back to that All-Star status. He's the focal point of us offensively."
So far, Love has backed up James' bravado with some brilliant basketball. He's averaging darn near 20 points and 12 rebounds while knocking down 38.5 percent of a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game.
But if you want to know where Love is really reasserting himself as an All-Star this season, look no further than the low post. According to NBA.com, he's scoring 1.29 points per play on post-ups—the highest mark of any player with at least 10 such possessions.
Still, Love wouldn't be doing this if James didn't want, need or allow him to do so. Heck, the UCLA product wouldn't even be in Cleveland had James not twinkled his nose like Samantha Stephens from Bewitched.
And, realistically, anyone who plays with the four-time MVP nowadays can't hope to be much more than second banana. Even Dwyane Wade, a champion before he and James joined forces, had to take a backseat to Bron-Bron in order to win two more titles with him.
Love's placement on the Cavs' totem pole could change once Kyrie Irving returns from his knee injury. Until then, he can continue to stake his claim to the title of "Hand of the King" in Cleveland.
2. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Aside from leading the team in scoring every year he's been in the league, Griffin now has a deadly mid-range game and deft touch as a passer and ball-handler to complement his ferocious rim attacks. Two years ago, he finished third in MVP voting, behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He would've been among the top vote-getters last season if not for an arm injury.
He did his part to remind the NBA of his value, though, when he averaged 30.0 points, 14.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists in Games 1 and 2 of L.A.'s second-round series against the Houston Rockets, with Paul sidelined by a sprained ankle.
Throw in the age gap between the two—Griffin, at 26, is just entering his prime while Paul, at 30, is approaching the twilight of his career—and the All-Star power forward probably doesn't belong on this list.
That's all well and good, but a team's true pecking order reveals itself in crunch time. And when the going gets tough for the Clippers, Paul still seizes control, for better or worse.
According to NBA.com, Paul uses more possessions, takes more shots and scores more points per 36 minutes of clutch time (i.e. last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, margin within five points) than his partner-in-crime at power forward—even though Griffin has been more efficient:
|Usage%||FGA/36 Mins||Pts/36 Mins||True Shooting %|
Griffin has narrowed the end-of-game gap between himself and Paul, but until he overtakes his point guard entirely, he'll still be the groomsman to CP3's groom.
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook has proven he has the goods to be an NBA top dog.
Last season, Westbrook averaged 31.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the 38 games he played without Kevin Durant. This season, he held steady at 32.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the six games Durant spent sidelined by a bum ankle.
As great as Westbrook can be guiding a team unencumbered, he and the Oklahoma City Thunder are both at their best when Durant is doing his thing. A shooter and scorer of Durant's caliber can't help but attract serious defensive attention and, in the process, open up driving lanes for his fellow All-Star.
That typically works out pretty well for OKC. Over the past two seasons, the Thunder have gone a middling 30-31—and missed the playoffs in 2015—without Durant, compared to 26-12 with him.
Not to mention all the victories, in both the regular season and playoffs, they piled up prior to 2014-15 with Durant and Westbrook working in tandem.
This doesn't all mean that Westbrook couldn't strike out on his own and run a squad successfully, like former Thunder sixth man James Harden has (for the most part) in Houston. Chances are, though, that Westbrook, at 27, is more concerned with winning than proving he can be "the man" in the Association.
"I don’t care what people think about me," he told Bleacher Report's Chris Palmer. "And I never will."
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Stats accurate as of Nov. 25.