Ranking Every NBA Team's Starting Backcourt Ahead of 2017-18 Season
As the NBA moves further and further into the three-point revolution, having guards capable of spacing the floor, setting up their teammates and shutting down others who can do the same has only grown increasingly important.
Only two of last year's postseason quarterfinalists find their backcourt ranked outside the top half in this countdown of the league's best for 2017-18. So while having star wings is advantageous—ditto for versatile contributors from the biggest spots—enjoying quality play at the smaller spots is almost always vital to success.
We're factoring in offense, defense, rebounding and plenty more—literally everything that happens on the court. But do note that these rankings are ultimately determined in subjective fashion. That subjectivity is based on plenty of film analysis and numerical work, but evaluating players is almost always a task in which opinions matter.
The order will also likely change as the season progresses and relevant players either regress or begin to break out. But for the time being, this is how the backcourts stack up heading into the next campaign.
The best of the best get to the top either by boasting a dominant player at one key spot and a competent one at the other, or by featuring a star apiece at point guard and shooting guard. The latter is the goal for every organization, but attaining it makes for a tall order.
30. New York Knicks: Ramon Sessions and Tim Hardaway Jr.
This is...less than ideal.
The New York Knicks still haven't quite found their direction, with Carmelo Anthony remaining on the roster (not that his presence is by any means a bad thing) and the post-Phil Jackson brain trust electing to give Tim Hardaway Jr. a questionable new deal. Handing him a four-year, $71 million contract to become a Knick for the second time, particularly after he didn't show that much with the Atlanta Hawks, is a glaring misstep.
Yes, Hardaway is far better than when he first played for New York. But he's still a defensive liability coming off a year in which his 56.8 true shooting percentage placed No. 36 among the 65 qualified players to average at least 14 points per game.
But let's say Hardaway does continue to get better. As he himself explained, per ESPN.com's Ian Begley, "They [the Knicks] said straight up, you have to obviously improve a lot more on defense and improve a lot more on the offensive end. So you can never settle."
Should that happen, New York still has the league's worst point-guard rotation. Frank Ntilikina isn't ready for major NBA minutes during his rookie season, and Ramon Sessions is an uninspiring option who struggled immensely on both ends while serving as Kemba Walker's backup for the Charlotte Hornets in 2016-17.
Just focus on Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks fans.
29. Chicago Bulls: Kris Dunn and Dwyane Wade
Though the Chicago Bulls have the NBA's second-worst starting backcourt, they're not in any danger of falling lower without a significant roster move. They outpace the Knicks by a sizable margin, and that will remain true unless (until?) Dwyane Wade is bought out and pursues a move to a new, more competitive organization.
In that situation, the Bulls would be left with an injured Zach LaVine, Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine or Paul Zipser joining Kris Dunn in the opening quintet. Assuming eventual health from the explosive LaVine, the Bulls would sit tight at No. 29, neither established enough to surpass another squad nor so devoid of upside that they fall behind the putrid Sessions-Hardaway combination.
But if Holiday, Valentine or Zipser were to replace Wade, that changes. All three would push the Bulls firmly to the position of caboose, and it wouldn't be particularly close. Neither Dunn nor any of those lesser options at the 2 can match Hardaway's game right now.
Fortunately for the Windy City, there is upside.
Dunn never found his shot during his rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he was an occasional defensive menace who thrived chasing off-ball shooters through screens and hindering pick-and-roll sets. As he develops more discipline, he should be a significant plus as a stopper, though whether his offense will come around is an entirely different question.
If it does, and he develops some semblance of a perimeter jumper, expect the Bulls' ranking to change rather dramatically by the end of the year.
28. Orlando Magic: Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier
If you feel like inserting Terrence Ross in for Evan Fournier, feel free to do so. The two enjoy amorphous roles at the two wing positions, to the point that you could technically consider either the starting 2.
Fournier spent 87 percent of his minutes at shooting guard in 2016-17 and is an inch shorter than Terrence Ross, who logged 9 percent of his run at the relevant position after a midseason trade sent him from the Toronto Raptors to the Orlando Magic. So we're rolling with the Frenchman. But if you're dead set on an Elfrid Payton-Ross backcourt, carry on with full knowledge that such a duo would be on the same level as Chicago's backcourt pairing rather than a tier ahead.
Right now, Fournier is the better player. His defensive woes can largely be canceled out by the work of Orlando's wings and crossmatching from Payton, and the versatility of his offense adds a new element to the Magic schemes.
Assuming his three-point shooting regresses to the mean—a career 37.9 percent shooter from downtown who hit at a 40 percent clip in 2015-16, he knocked down just 35.6 percent of his deep looks last year—he won't be the anchor dragging this backcourt down to such a low level. That's on Payton.
He hasn't shown the development necessary to remain a starting lock at point guard. The Magic's roster situation places him in such a role, but his job could be in jeopardy through the draft and free agency next summer if his offense doesn't improve.
Even after three years of work, he's now entering the 2017-18 campaign coming off a go-round in which he shot just 27.4 percent from downtown and provided so little spacing that defenses constantly constricted against Orlando.
27. Indiana Pacers: Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo's lone season with the Oklahoma City Thunder did not go as planned. But that may be because of some unfortunate circumstances, since he was acquired while the team was still operating under the assumption that Kevin Durant might be returning rather than jumping ship to the Golden State Warriors.
The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy had more on the changing role:
"OKC seemed like the perfect destination to harness the 24-year-old’s upside. He had dabbled in the combo guard role enough that Billy Donovan could slot him as a secondary ball handler, and his leaping abilities would be showcased better paired with two already-established superstars. He wouldn’t be shoehorned into a focal-point role any longer. Then Durant left for Golden State.
"KD’s free agency was a dropping Tetris piece — lined up perfectly to fit the gap — that turned sideways at the last second…
"Here, as second fiddle to Russell Westbrook, Dipo had little choice but to try his hand at spot-up shooting. The former went on to claim a record-high usage rate, while his counterpart left the isolation game behind. In its place were the most catch-and-shoot attempts of Oladipo’s career. He attacked the rim less than ever, released the majority of his shots after two seconds or less of possession time, and used a greater percentage of his touches for 3-point attempts than Russ did. To the non-shooting shooting guard’s credit, there was improvement. Oladipo ended the season shooting 36 percent from deep and found rhythm with the corner 3s at 43.8 percent altogether. He was OKC’s second-leading scorer."
Oladipo should resume filling a more natural job now that he's with the Indiana Pacers.
He'll be able to attack the basket and display more distributing skills while simultaneously applying all that he learned as an off-ball weapon for the Thunder. Pair that with the established offensive acumen of Darren Collison—a tremendous shooter who manages to rack up assists while rarely turning over the rock—and this franchise is another candidate to elevate up the ranks as the season progresses.
But for now, with Oladipo coming off an underwhelming year in which nearly all of his advanced metrics underwent significant backsliding, it's tough to justify higher placement.
26. Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Smith Jr. and Seth Curry
During six games at Las Vegas Summer League, Dennis Smith Jr. averaged 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 0.2 blocks, looking every bit the part of a future stud.
Turnovers and low shooting percentages typically plague young guards adjusting to the speed of the NBA game and operating without established chemistry alongside their new teammates. Neither issue popped up for this rookie, who coughed the ball over just 2.8 times per game while slashing 45.7/34.6/70.5.
Sure, he'll need to shoot more efficiently when contests count, but that's a terrific beginning. It should inspire confidence that he can immediately slot in as the Dallas Mavericks' starting point guard and hold his own against the many studs populating the position.
That last point is why these Mavericks might seem underrated.
Smith is a fantastic talent whose explosion and scoring acumen should play well from the get-go. Meanwhile, Seth Curry developed into a bona fide starter during his breakout year in Dallas, displaying not only his shooting touch, but also his quick hands and knack for defensive positioning.
"Confidence [has allowed him to grow]. Confidence is a big thing in this league," Wesley Matthews told Bleacher Report about Curry last season while the Mavericks were preparing for a game against the Denver Nuggets.
"Obviously he's put the work in and he's got skill—you've gotta have some skill. He's always been able to shoot the ball. He's crafty and makes plays. But confidence and repetition. What's really underrated about him is his ability to defend."
This is a promising tandem with talent on both ends of the court. But backcourts are so deep in the Association that established production can often pay off, and the Mavs will be fighting against either a point guard who's previously proved himself, a consistent contributor at the 2 or a rookie floor general with even more pedigree almost every night.
25. Milwaukee Bucks: Malcolm Brogdon and Tony Snell
Speaking of a "point guard who's previously proved himself," Malcolm Brogdon is now coming off a Rookie of the Year finish, in which he outpaced Joel Embiid and Dario Saric to win the preeminent individual award for first-year players.
Little about Brogdon's game is glamorous, but that's just fine. He's a steady presence for the Milwaukee Bucks, capably filling whatever role he's thrust into while minimizing his turnovers and looking like a true veteran. Sometimes players just display a preternatural feel for the game and control the proceedings at the tempo of their choosing, and Brogdon already qualifies as such a floor general at the ripe old age of...24.
Maybe this former Virginia standout doesn't have the upside necessary to ever qualify as a top-tier point guard. But his floor is quite high, and that counts for a lot.
The opposite is true for his running mate.
Tony Snell might fail to justify the four-year, $46 million contract the Bucks handed him this offseason. But the 25-year-old 2-guard is also brimming with upside after shooting so well down the stretch and during Milwaukee's brief postseason adventure.
Yes, we're projecting him to start at the 2 in Milwaukee's largely positionless lineup. Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo are both larger players who will defend up in the rotation, while Jabari Parker—especially post-ACL-rehab Parker—should work best as a super-sub when he returns around the All-Star break.
But that will only remain true if Snell continues to produce like he did at the end of the year. After the league's superstars returned from their midseason party, he averaged 9.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.0 steals while shooting 44.8 percent from the field, 41.5 percent from downtown and 90.5 percent at the charity stripe.
24. Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley and Austin Rivers
Neither Patrick Beverley nor Austin Rivers jump off the page, but they've become two of the league's most underrated backcourt contributors in recent seasons. Their names seemingly carry too little national recognition to justify this placement; their games scream otherwise.
Though Rivers may have turned into an early bust after the New Orleans Hornets used the No. 10 pick of the 2012 NBA draft on him, he's turned around his career rather nicely. Moving into the starting lineup during the 2016-17 campaign, he showed off two-way abilities while playing alongside the established stars.
The son of the Los Angeles Clippers head coach, Rivers needs to keep honing his perimeter stroke while working to improve as a distributor. He's also far too susceptible to backdoor cuts and can fall asleep away from the primary action. But that's about where the glaring flaws end, since he's developed into a fairly efficient scorer who can create his own looks, as well as a tremendous on-ball defender.
Last year, opponents logged just 0.75 points per possession against him in isolation, which left him in the 79.4 percentile.
And yet, Rivers is the inferior stopper in the LAC backcourt. Beverley is now coming off an All-Defensive first-team appearance (the first such nod of his career), and he remains one of the league's elite preventers. A hounding presence who challenges ball-handlers as soon as an entry pass is thrown, he's the type of guard who opponents genuinely fear as soon as they see the Houston Rockets Clippers coming up on the calendar.
He's also so much more.
Beverley used his time alongside James Harden to develop into a threat on the boards, an effective passer out of the pick-and-roll and a dangerous spot-up shooter. This past season, he chipped in with an impressive 1.12 points per possession off the catch, which left him in the 79.8 percentile.
Don't be fooled by the lack of big names here. They'll be plenty effective.
23. Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore
Dennis Schroder's first season as the unquestioned starting point guard for the Atlanta Hawks was adventurous.
He showed flashes of brilliance on each end of the floor with his speed and offensive explosiveness, but his flaws also reared their ugly heads. Turnovers could be an issue when he played with recklessness. He shot just 45.1 percent from the field and 34.0 percent on his three-point attempts. Defense was also a massive problem, as he often resembled a turnstile after gambling unsuccessfully for steals.
But Schroder should be a steadier presence in year two as a full-time starter. He'd also be aided by Kent Bazemore's remembering he's supposed to be more than a replacement-level offensive wing.
In the first year of his mega-contract, No. 24 regressed across the board. His ferocious defensive efforts, aided by both his length and athleticism, took a step in the wrong direction, and he forgot how to shoot the basketball. One year after slashing 44.1/35.7/81.0, those percentages fell to 40.9, 34.6 and 70.8, respectively.
As Ross Alacqua wrote for Soaring Down South, he wasn't playing to his strengths:
"Aside from the numbers, especially early last season, it was easy to see he was trying to create more off the dribble, attack more in the pick-and-roll and generally take a more assertive approach on offense. Maybe he felt the pressure of the contract.
"Maybe he felt he needed to after the Hawks lost Al Horford and would be more limited on offense. Either way, that's not necessarily his strength. He's at his best when he's getting out in transition, slashing to the rim in the half court, knocking down catch-and-shoot jump shots and being a pest on defense."
It's year two for Schroder as the lead guard, but it's also year two for Bazemore as a player saddled with loftier expectations. Both should improve and display more of their many talents.
22. New Orleans Pelicans: Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday
How much will the spacing concerns matter?
Jrue Holiday shot only 35.6 percent from beyond the rainbow during the 2016-17 campaign, and that's an improvement upon his 33.6 percent clip in 2015-16. Rajon Rondo has actually fared better in each of those two seasons (36.5 and 37.6 percent), but the numbers have come on fewer attempts per game. He still doesn't seem to threaten defenders into playing him tightly.
Considering the dearth of (healthy) shooting wings and the need to open things up for DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, this could be problematic.
But it's not like this tandem is devoid of talent.
Holiday and Rondo are both tremendous on-ball defenders who use veteran guile and physicality to hamper their opponents. They'll be able to crossmatch and switch onto backcourt players and wings alike, showing off the full extent of their point-preventing skills while Davis and Cousins do the heavy offensive lifting.
They're also both great distributors.
Rondo might have a tendency to chase assists, sometimes at the expense of calling his own number on an easy attempt around the basket, but he's a game-changing force running the pick-and-roll. Holiday's penchant for avoiding turnovers also helps him stand out when he tries to involve his teammates.
There's plenty of good and bad here.
21. San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker and Danny Green
At this point, the world knows exactly what Danny Green is.
Just as he's been for so many years now, he's an elite three-and-D option for the San Antonio Spurs. He doesn't create many of his own shots and is fairly bereft of upside, but his penchant for locking down opposing wings and then burying catch-and-shoot triples makes him valuable.
Last year, Green was one of just two qualified players throughout the league to post a defensive box plus/minus north of 2.5 while shooting at least 37 percent from beyond the arc. The other? Kevin Durant. In fact, only Green, Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have joined the club during the last five seasons.
Strange as this may seem after experiencing such steadiness at the position for well over a decade, the Spurs' biggest backcourt concern comes at point guard.
We're projecting Tony Parker to reclaim his starting role whenever he's fully recovered from the brutal blow to his left quadriceps, and Green has indicated, as relayed by Spurs Zone's Jeff Garcia, that his return could come sooner than expected. But Parker was a liability on both ends of the floor for much of last season, hindered by Father Time and an inability to display the foot speed he possessed earlier in his career.
If Patty Mills takes over the starting job, the Spurs backcourt would jump past the next three teams in this countdown, thanks to the tangible benefits of the Australian combo guard's tremendous shooting and floor-spacing acumen. But if Dejounte Murray earns the job, even if we expect him to experience a second-year breakout, his inexperience would push San Antonio behind the New Orleans Pelicans, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks.
Consider Parker a balancing act, of sorts.
20. Los Angeles Lakers: Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope tandem seems like it should at least rank within the top half of the league's backcourts. Los Angeles Lakers fans might be frustrated that it doesn't. But before they work their way past plenty of more accomplished players—every duo ahead has at least one player who's demonstrated solid work in the NBA before—they need to prove themselves.
Ball is an exciting presence. His vision should allow him to make an immediate impact while also improving those around him. Expect Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance to be primary beneficiaries, for example.
But he's by no means a perfect player at this early stage of his professional career. Contrary to his father's beliefs, he's not going to suddenly lead the Lake Show to 50 wins as a rookie, and he won't later in his career until he proves his unorthodox shooting motion works and he has enough strength to body up against NBA guards.
And then there's Caldwell-Pope.
Despite the free-agency hype he received early in the proceedings and the one-year balloon deal he signed with the Lakers worth just under $18 million, the ex-Detroit Piston hasn't yet asserted himself as a largely positive presence. ESPN.com's real plus/minus listed him 30th among shooting guards, grading him out as a slightly above-average offensive player and a substandard defender.
Caldwell-Pope showed, at times, that he could be a lockdown presence and a capable catch-and-shoot player. But consistency eluded him, leading to overall numbers that don't yet push him and the Lakers into more promising territory.
19. Brooklyn Nets: Jeremy Lin and D'Angelo Russell
Jeremy Lin: underrated. D'Angelo Russell: underrated.
Sense a theme yet?
Though the incumbent point guard experienced plenty of injuries throughout 2016-17, he played the best basketball of his career while healthy. Maybe it wasn't accompanied by cries of "Linsanity," but he continued to showcase his impactful abilities in so many areas.
Lin constantly attacks the basket out of the pick-and-roll, demonstrating an ability to finish around the hoop while still keeping his eyes up in search of teammates spotting up on the perimeter. He's still not a great shooter and struggles defensively, but he's no longer a turnover machine and scored 0.88 points per possession as a PnR guard to rank in the 69.3 percentile. That's valuable, especially when paired with another threatening ball-handler.
And that's where Russell comes in.
His leadership abilities and off-court bonding issues gave him a bad reputation while with the Los Angeles Lakers, but that doesn't make him a bad player. In fact, he's consistently improved during his professional career. His shot still needs plenty of work and he can fall into bad habits of lofting up ill-advised heat-checks, but becoming a more consistent facilitator has gone a long way.
Now, he's surrounded by better shooters. His vision and pinpoint accuracy in traffic should help Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll bounce back nicely.
18. Sacramento Kings: George Hill and Buddy Hield
Once he was traded from the New Orleans Pelicans to the Sacramento Kings, Buddy Hield began to break out. He averaged 15.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.8 steals while shooting 48.0 percent from the field, 42.8 percent from downtown and 81.4 percent at the stripe—strong enough numbers for him to be named March's Rookie of the Month and make the All-Rookie First Team.
But how valuable was he?
He was certainly a beneficial presence on offense, though his inability to avoid turnovers mitigated some of his scoring prowess. Unfortunately, the same description doesn't apply to his defense. Hield remained a net negative because of his overwhelming porosity, thereby limiting what the Kings could do while he was on the floor.
He should grow as a sophomore, but he's still not quite where he needs to be as the Sacramento backcourt tries to break into the top half. George Hill, however, is.
Still underrated after injuries distracted onlookers from realizing just how valuable he was for the Utah Jazz when healthy, Hill is a two-way threat at the 1. Capable of draining jumpers, involving his teammates and playing lockdown defense on the perimeter, he's a prototypical floor general who just developed a bit too late to get proper recognition.
Hill alone bumps the Kings over quite a few teams below them. And if you're wondering what might happen if they replaced him with De'Aaron Fox, letting the rookie take over while the veteran serves as a mentor off the bench, Sacramento would fall to No. 28 in these rankings.
17. Philadelphia 76ers: Markelle Fultz and JJ Redick
This isn't just about Markelle Fultz.
The rookie point guard is certainly a tremendous addition to a Philadelphia 76ers squad on the rise, fitting perfectly with the incumbent pieces and ready to immediately take the reins as the starting floor general. His savvy and explosive offensive habits should play nicely alongside Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, Joel Embiid and just about everyone else wearing the same uniform.
As Jonathan Wasserman wrote for Bleacher Report, those teammates should also make his life easier than it was in college:
"Athletic, long and exceptionally skilled, the draft's No. 1 pick just averaged 23.2 points per game at Washington despite being its only player defenses had to game-plan for. That won't be the case this year, given all the attention Embiid and Simmons will draw and Redick's shooting in the backcourt.
"Fultz will have to adjust from being a ball-dominator to a secondary option, but more supporting weapons could also mean fewer tough shots."
But JJ Redick—for now, at least—is the current standout in this backcourt.
We could focus on his underrated defensive abilities and knack for hitting open teammates with timely passes, but that would be misleading. Valuable as those skills may be, his shooting is what sets him apart from so many other 2-guards.
The Duke product didn't quite lead the league in three-point percentage, as he did in 2015-16 for the Los Angeles Clippers. But he did knock down 42.9 percent of his treys while taking a staggering six per contest. Expect him to at least replicate those numbers with Embiid pulling defenders away while Simmons and Fultz both show off their passing vision.
16. Utah Jazz: Ricky Rubio and Rodney Hood
Rodney Hood has scored more points per minute during every single year of his professional career, and he's now coming off a season in which he posted 16.9 per 36. With Gordon Hayward gone to the Boston Celtics, he's the man most likely to pick up the offensive slack and become a go-to scorer.
Hood is a versatile contributor who's at his best operating in so many different areas. He can create his own looks while working at his own pace. He can pull up for jumpers or draw fouls. He can even shoot off the catch, producing exactly a point per possession as a spot-up marksman last year.
That last number only left him in the 58th percentile, though. And that's where Ricky Rubio comes into the equation.
If the NBA boasts more gifted distributors at the point, you can count them on a single hand. The Spanish floor general remains a limited shooter who allows defenders to sag off him, but he makes up for his shortcomings with brilliant passing vision and a penchant for racking up steals while playing tough on-ball defense.
George Hill helped the Utah Jazz's spot-up shooters; Rubio will assist them even more effectively in 2017-18, and Hood stands to be a leading beneficiary.
15. Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray and Gary Harris
The Denver Nuggets are missing an element crucial to most NBA backcourts: passing excellence.
But notice we said "most" rather than "all."
Because the Nuggets get non-traditional production from their celestial frontcourt, the guards can focus on other responsibilities. Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap are two of the league's best big-man passers, sparking terrific offenses with their kick-out feeds and mutual knack for hitting cutters in stride. They'll operate with the ball in their hands often enough that both Jamal Murray and Gary Harris can shine elsewhere.
And shine they will.
Murray could develop as a distributor, but he profiles first as a shot-creator capable of getting his own offense from anywhere on the court. The shooting percentages weren't quite there during his rookie season out of Kentucky, but the confidence and form with which he operated indicates he's in store for far bigger and better things.
The more established option would be Harris, fresh off a year in which he excelled as both a cutter and spot-up shooter. Displaying remarkable synergy with Jokic, he tortured defenses with his athletic bursts to the hoop and kept them off-balance by knocking down plenty of catch-and-shoot jumpers.
Harris and Murray don't enjoy the name recognition of many backcourts surrounding them in these rankings. But they'll produce enough offense to justify their placement, and development on the defensive end could push them closer to the top 10.
14. Detroit Pistons: Reggie Jackson and Avery Bradley
So much depends on Reggie Jackson, and we're largely splitting the difference between the two extremes.
If he regains his health and reminds onlookers why he was once considered a future All-Star, he could easily push the Detroit Pistons backcourt into the top 10. If he continues to struggle with knee tendinitis and never regains the physicality he previously possessed on both ends, this could be one of the dozen worst groupings in the NBA.
Jackson remains talented. It's just the extent of the injuries that remains to be seen. So long as he's able to explode toward the hoop while dribbling and move quickly enough that he doesn't require constant assistance on the defensive side, he'll at least look like a legitimate starter at the 1.
Even if he doesn't, the Pistons are now boosted by the presence of Avery Bradley.
The ex-Boston Celtic acquired in a trade for Marcus Morris should immediately become the team's best three-point shooter, helping space out the floor around Andre Drummond and allowing head coach Stan Van Gundy to move closer toward his favored four-out, one-in stylings. He's also a premier perimeter defender and should be capable of alleviating Jackson's responsibilities by taking on the toughest assignment each and every night.
Stylistically, these two are a strong match. Now they just need to cross their fingers that Jackson experiences no setbacks and quickly answers any concerns about his conditioning.
13. Miami Heat: Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters
Don't let Goran Dragic's age concern you. At 31 years old, he's dangerously close to the time when many point guards experience dramatic drop-offs, but his performance during EuroBasket should help assuage any fears.
Playing for Slovenia, the aggressive floor general has averaged a whopping 21.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.7 steals while shooting 48.0 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from downtown and 85.2 percent on his free-throw attempts, per RealGM.com.
All this comes on the heels of his best NBA season yet, one in which he developed into a three-point marksman averaging 20.3 points per game who thrived in head coach Erik Spoelstra's drive-and-kick schemes. Not only can Dragic create his own offense and find open teammates, but he's also become a dangerous off-ball weapon who can excel when Dion Waiters is doing the handling.
Despite Dragic's age, Waiters is the bigger question mark.
How will he handle playing on a four-year deal worth $52 million that forces him into a different type of prove-yourself mentality? Was his breakout legitimate, or is a 46-game sample too small to draw conclusions?
The ease and confidence with which he played should at least indicate a positive answer to the first part of the second question. The rest is up in the air.
12. Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley and Tyreke Evans
Can we just take a step back and think about how ridiculously effective Mike Conley was last year?
He's the first legitimate—and established—star to show up at either backcourt position in these rankings, coming off a season in which he averaged 20.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals while slashing 46.0/40.8/85.9. He may not have made the Western Conference All-Star squad, which remains inexplicable, but he's become one of the NBA's 25 best players.
Sport's Illustrated's countdown of the top 100 contributors slotted him at No. 18. ESPN.com's #NBARank listed him at No. 23. And though the Memphis Grizzlies edition of NBA Math's #CrystalBasketball project hasn't yet been released, I can confirm now that he'll fit in somewhere between those two numbers.
Advanced metrics draw a similar conclusion. Only 15 players finished with a higher score in ESPN.com's real plus/minus. Just 16 did the same in NBA Math's total points added metric, which accounts for both volume and per-possession efficiency.
Conley was a stud, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. He might be even better with an increased offensive focus as the roster changes around him and loses that grit-and-grind feel.
But Tyreke Evans isn't on the same level.
Continuing to shoot as he did in his 14-game stint with the Sacramento Kings (43.8 percent on 3.4 triples per game) would help the Grizz move further up these rankings, but for the time being, Evans has turned into too much of a defensive liability and limited offensive player to justify anything better than No. 12.
11. Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown
First, some housekeeping.
The Boston Celtics could go in a number of different directions with their starting lineup, since they boast a plethora of wings and operate in head coach Brad Stevens' positionless world. We're assuming Kyrie Irving (an absolute lock) and Jaylen Brown earn the backcourt nods, but Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart or—in a massive surprise—Terry Rozier could end up opening games as a 2 in name only.
So, here's where Boston would rank in each situation:
- Irving and Hayward: No. 5
- Irving and Smart: No. 9
- Irving and Rozier: No. 14
This isn't quite the optimal backcourt, but allowing Hayward to remain at the 3 makes for a stronger frontcourt. Bringing Smart off the pine as a super-sub and allowing him to replace players at multiple positions is also, well, a smart decision.
Irving is a bona fide stud. That much we know. His flaws (limited playmaking for others and porous defense) are all well-known, but they're nearly negated by his offensive talent. No player in the NBA is more talented in isolation, and this ball-handling wizard seems to put at least a couple of defenders on skates every night.
Brown is still an unknown, and he didn't log a single minute at the 2 last year. This will be an adjustment for the California product, even if he managed to show off a better shooting stroke than expected as a rookie.
If he can build upon his 34.1 percent clip from downtown and continue to assert himself as a physical defender with an unfair combination of speed and strength, he'll push Beantown's backcourt into a top-10 spot with room to spare. Just don't bet on that quite yet, because growth while operating at a new position is a tough ask from anyone and far from a guaranteed outcome.
10. Phoenix Suns: Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker
Would Dean Oliver, the godfather of NBA analytics himself and a man who has worked in the front offices of the Sacramento Kings, Seattle SuperSonics and Denver Nuggets, please take center stage:
"The 70-point Devin Booker game was a good game, not a great one. He did a lot of his damage when the Suns were down 20 points and, relevantly, the team's performance didn't exactly correlate to his point scoring. You can see that when the fourth quarter began and the Suns cut the lead to 11, Booker wasn't really part of that. As he picked up some of his scoring at the very end, it did cut the lead, but that was garbage time when the lead was safe...
"But also don't let one great game blind you to the mediocre season that Booker had. No player value metric...placed Booker as an above-average player this past year. Yes, his defense was lousy, but his offense was below average, too. He's on a good trendline, but he wasn't good.
"There's a difference between good now and good down the road, and I believe that what keeps some player-development coaches from being head coaches is that they see what a player could be better than they see what a player is. And Booker isn't good. He might become good, but he isn't there yet."
Booker could be good as a third-year NBA player. He could be great, even.
But averaging 22.1 points doesn't make him a star yet when he's functioned as one of the league's worst high-minute defenders and posted a true shooting percentage (53.1) well below the league average (55.2). ESPN.com's real plus/minus (minus-1.3), NBA Math's total points added (minus-131.2) and player efficiency rating (14.6) all come to the same conclusion: He provided below-average contributions as a sophomore, despite what his scoring average on a basement-dwelling team might otherwise indicate.
Obviously, we don't think that will remain true.
Eric Bledsoe is one of the NBA's most underrated players when he's healthy, able to function nicely on both ends of the floor, but he alone can't push a backcourt into the top 10. We're giving Booker plenty of credit here just to have the desert-based guards inside that portion of the rankings, but he'll have to show substantial strides for this Phoenix Suns duo to hit its ceiling and push toward something like No. 7 by the end of the year.
9. Cleveland Cavaliers: Isaiah Thomas and JR Smith
Yes, this assumes a full return to health from Isaiah Thomas.
One of the big acquisitions in the Kyrie Irving trade, Thomas is still working his way back from an injured hip, and no one seems to have a firm timetable for his recovery. Maybe, as Tom Haberstroh reported for ESPN.com, it's more serious than anyone expects. Perhaps, per The Athletic's Jason Lloyd, all we can reasonably expect right now is a lack of clarity:
"What's clear now is Thomas won't be playing in games anytime soon. Four months later, he is still limited to just treatment and the weight room. That's it. The fact the Cavs won't even address the hip is, at best, unsettling. It's not like this happened a week or even a month ago.
"It's reasonable to expect a firmer timeline four months removed from the injury, yet the only thing we know for sure is that Thomas won't have surgery to repair his torn labrum. Anything else regarding the hip was off-limits Thursday."
For the sake of these rankings, we'll assume he returns to his previous level whenever he makes his Cleveland Cavaliers debut. If he doesn't, the Northeast Ohio backcourt will obviously drop quite a bit, whether he's a shell of his old self (ranking would be unknown) or replaced in the starting five by Derrick Rose (ranking would drop to No. 28).
Yes, the difference between full-strength Thomas and current Rose is that large, though that's a topic for another time and place.
Either way, JR Smith can't carry this backcourt by himself, especially coming off an injury-plagued season in which he shot just 34.6 percent on his field-goal attempts and 35.1 percent on his long-balls. The 32-year-old should play more confidently going forward, but he's a complementary role player with inconsistent defensive focus at this stage of his career.
8. Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum
Just imagine if Nicolas Batum bounces back.
The 32-year-old shooting guard declined substantially in 2016-17, averaging just 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists while slashing 40.3/33.3/85.6. The per-game numbers were still impressive and highlight the versatility of his game as an oversized, 6'8" 2-guard with plenty of athletic abilities, but the efficiency just wasn't there.
Wait. He's not 32?
It may seem like Batum has been around long enough to be entering his mid-30s, but that's only because he entered the NBA as a teenager back in 2008. He actually won't celebrate his 29th birthday until mid-December, giving him plenty of time to bounce back and resume an upward trajectory.
If that happens, he and Kemba Walker complement each other perfectly.
Batum can take away some of the ball-handling responsibilities while focusing most of his energy reserves on less glamorous areas. Walker can continue functioning as one of the NBA's most dangerous pick-and-roll threats, punishing defenders who have no idea whether to duck under or go over the top of screens. His improved jumper in conjunction with his enduring speed makes him a devastating weapon, and he's now learned how to use the former in a variety of situations.
Last year, Walker posted a 47.8 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers—No. 18 among the 89 players with at least 200 relevant attempts. He also led the pack of 122 men with as many catch-and-shoot jumpers by posting a mind-numbing 70.2 effective field-goal percentage.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves: Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler
Here's a fun piece of trivia: The Minnesota Timberwolves have the only projected starting lineup in which both players had previously spent their entire NBA tenures playing for other organizations. Jimmy Butler, until the 2017-18 season starts, has only suited up for the Chicago Bulls. Jeff Teague has spent his whole professional career with the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers don't really count, because Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz have never played for different NBA organizations. And while the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers are both bringing in two new starters, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Darren Collison have spent previous stints with those respective organizations.
But don't let this convince you Teague and Butler can't build chemistry with one another—or their new teammates.
Both are unselfish players who know how to pick their spots while working nicely with others. The former thrives as a distributing floor general, and he's averaged at least seven dimes while keeping his turnovers in check during two of the last three seasons. The latter can take over as a No. 1 scoring option, but he should also be willing to let Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins handle primary scoring responsibilities while he focuses on playing top-tier defense.
This should work rather well, so long as everyone buys in.
Now, let's address the elephant in the room. Wiggins previously spent some time at the 2, while Butler frequently played small forward for the Bulls. So why is the incoming wing listed as the backcourt starter?
Based on defensive responsibilities and height, these designations make more sense. Don't be surprised when these two men are used interchangeably under head coach Tom Thibodeau.
6. Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum
If defense didn't matter, the Portland Trail Blazers would enjoy an even loftier rank. But it does, and that's a problem.
Damian Lillard is an absolute sieve on the preventing end. Even at this relatively advanced stage of his career, he hasn't figured out that screens aren't brick walls; he can go around them or continue on toward a defender after making contact with an opponent.
And unfortunately, the same is true for CJ McCollum, though his biggest problems stem from off-ball scenarios. The 2-guard has demonstrated an ability to stick with PnR ball-handlers and isolation attacks, but he falls asleep and loses track of his mark far too often when they're running through screens to extricate themselves from the defense.
It's that dual porosity that has led to some questions about the long-term future of this dynamic duo. But the answers to all of those questions should still be positive, because the offensive contributions of the Lillard-McCollum pairing are jaw-dropping.
Consider this: In NBA Math's Play-Type Profiles, the two guards added positive value in every scoring situation, with only two exceptions. Lillard was slightly negative as a PnR roll man and on put-backs, but it's not like he uses those play types often (just a combined five times, in fact).
The point guard remains one of the Association's most dangerous volume scorers, a man whose pull-up abilities rival anyone's. The shooting guard is, as Frank Urbina broke down for HoopsHype, arguably the league's most versatile point-producer. And they're both skilled facilitators.
Even without any defense, they're unquestionably among the best backcourts.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson
Let's just get this out of the way now.
Russell Westbrook, the league's reigning MVP who's now providing an encore to a season in which he averaged a triple-double, is quite good at the whole basketball thing. Now that James Harden has moved back to the 2, the conversation about the NBA's best point guard should revolve around this Oklahoma City Thunder floor general and Stephen Curry.
OK. With that taken care of, we can focus on the other member of the starting backcourt.
Andre Roberson is a limited player. That much should be inordinately clear after he averaged 6.6 points and 1.0 assists in his 30.1 minutes of run while shooting 46.4 percent from the field, 24.5 percent from downtown and a vomit-inducing 42.3 percent at the stripe. Unless he's finishing plays at the rim, he's devoid of touch. Even from three to 10 feet, he hit just a quarter of his looks.
But his offensive woes were superseded by his defensive value in 2016-17, and that should only become increasingly clear with Paul George ready to help shoulder even more of the offensive burden. Roberson can focus almost solely on defense, only tasked with the occasional spot-up jumper—that he will likely miss—on the scoring side.
Thanks to his extreme athleticism, long arms, film-junkie habits and willingness to execute a game plan, Roberson became arguably the league's best perimeter defender during his most recent season with the Thunder. He was "only" awarded a spot on the All-Defensive Second Team, and that was largely because his reputation hasn't yet caught up with his production.
If you need a stop against a superstar wing or guard such as Harden, Roberson is your man.
4. Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan
Together, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan averaged a combined 49.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 10.9 assists while shooting 46.6 percent from the field, 38.2 percent from downtown and 83.4 percent from the free-throw line.
And let's take that one step further.
Toronto's average backcourt starter posted 24.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.5 dimes with those shooting splits. No matter how porous DeRozan may be on the defensive end, no matter how limited his three-point stroke has been throughout his career, and no matter how much this duo has struggled during the postseason, that's unbelievable.
But those shortcomings do exist.
"Everyone and their brother knows we want better ball movement," head coach Dwane Casey said this offseason on Sportsnet 590 The Fan (h/t The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor). "We don't want to give our whole 'what we're going to try to do next year' away, but again it comes down to passing the basketball and better spacing more so than, you know…one-on-one play."
Maybe DeRozan will finally become a deft three-point shooter. Maybe he won't keep pounding the air out of the rock while trying to set himself up for a mid-range jumper. And the 2-guard isn't the only culprit, since Lowry also struggled a bit defensively, and his year-after-year tribulations in the playoffs help push his Raptors slightly below the No. 3 squad in this countdown.
But there's no shame in a top-four finish, given the overall quality of the guards in this league.
3. Washington Wizards: John Wall and Bradley Beal
John Wall finally joined the elusive 20/10 club in 2016-17 while continuing to play some of the position's better defense. He's one of the league's most gifted distributors while on the move, always serves as a threat to penetrate into the paint and wreaks havoc with his athleticism as an off-ball help-defender jumping into passing lanes and blocking shots from the weakside.
Though his three-point stroke still lags behind where it should be (32.7 percent on 3.5 attempts per game), he's become a fairly complete player on the brink of elite status at the 1. You can make a convincing argument he and Chris Paul are neck and neck to play positional third fiddle behind Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.
And he's not the only one near the top of the class.
At shooting guard, few have a better claim to the throne than Bradley Beal. As broken down in more detail while arguing he could become a first-time All-Star in 2017-18, the talented 2-guard has cut back on his turnovers, developed as a distributor and finally taken the next step with regard to his shot distribution.
Perhaps most impressive of all the growth is the fact that Beal took a lower percentage of his shots from every single two-point range outside three feet while spending more time attacking the hoop and launching three-point efforts. He's bought into the efficiency movement, and the rest of the Eastern Conference is now in quite the pickle when attempting to corral this backcourt.
Head coach Scott Brooks is known for his player development, and he's had an immediate impact on this former Gator.
2. Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson
The Golden State Warriors, despite their status as defending champions, have relinquished their hold on this crown.
That's not Stephen Curry's fault. He remains one of the league's two best point guards—an underrated rebounder and defender who provides gravity like no other. He's still the greatest shooter in NBA history, has passing flair few can match and adds as much offensive value as anyone.
That's not Klay Thompson's fault, either. Though his game still contains notable flaws (off-ball defense on occasion, a lack of rebounding impact and limited distributing skills), he's the three-and-D model all others are striving to match. The Splash Brothers wouldn't be complete without him, and his willingness to crossmatch against tough ball-handlers is advantageous.
Frankly, complaining about these two is an impossible task.
They're just...not quite as deadly as the new tandem set to challenge them for Western Conference supremacy throughout the 2017-18 campaign.
1. Houston Rockets: Chris Paul and James Harden
If you have any concerns about how these two guards will coexist on the Houston Rockets, don't.
Seriously. Just stop it.
Chris Paul and James Harden are both used to operating with the ball in their hands. They thrive when functioning as the central point of attack, probing a defense until they're able to get to their favorite spots. For Paul, that's a mid-range zone, where he can either continue breaking down the opposition off the dribble, knock down a pull-up jumper or find a teammate. For Harden, that's either behind the arc or at the basket itself.
Under the supervision of noted point guard whisperer/head coach Mike D'Antoni, they'll produce a mind-bending amount of offense.
The Rockets can now have an elite ball-handler on the floor throughout an entire game, and both players are capable of either calling their own numbers or setting up their teammates with aplomb. It's almost unfair, especially because Paul can fill the Patrick Beverley role and cover up for his new teammate on defense.
But there's only one ball, right? How can they work in conjunction with one another?
Paul produced 1.1 points per possession (77.3 percentile) in spot-up situations last year, and that was while he served as the only guard capable of consistently creating for others. Harden added 1.2 points per possession (90.6 percentile) in those same situations, and his life could be even easier with an elite distributor working alongside him.
Everything about this new duo seems perfect.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.