Ranking the Top 10 NBA Shooting Guards Entering 2017-18 Season
Sorting through the NBA's best backcourt partners proves uniquely challenging since the lines between 2s, 3s and 4s have become increasingly blurred. Though this past year's classifications will shape the pool, new situations must be taken into account.
Jimmy Butler, for example, registered as a small forward in 2016-17 with the Chicago Bulls, but he should end up playing more off-guard with the Minnesota Timberwolves. As such, he gets bunched in with the rest of the league's 2s.
Those expecting to see one of the Milwaukee Bucks, by comparison, will be disappointed. They dance between so many different styles that neither Giannis Antetokounmpo nor Khris Middleton qualifies as a shooting guard. That designation instead goes to whoever was announced most often at the position as a starter (Tony Snell).
These rankings follow the same logic as the point guard hierarchy: Players are placed solely off their expected contributions for 2017-18. Last season's efforts go a long way toward creating that baseline, but age, health, projected playing time and role changes (new teammates, play-style adjustments, etc.) all factor into the final power structure.
Honorable Mentions: Nos. 15 to 11
15. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks, 46.4 percent shooting
Andre Roberson shot 25.3 percent on wide-open threes last season, doesn't do much off the dribble, forces the Oklahoma City Thunder to play a man down on offense and blah, blah, blah.
Anyone calling for Dwyane Wade to get this spot needs a miniature reality check. Now that he's joining the Cleveland Cavaliers, per The Vertical's Shams Charania, Wade won't be cycling through the volume necessary to play like a top-15 player at his position. If he does, it'll be as a stand-in point guard until Isaiah Thomas returns from his hip injury.
Also: The Chicago Bulls filed better offensive and defensive ratings without Wade. His built-in chemistry with LeBron James drums up his stock a bit, but he's 35 years old. Something's wrong if the Cavaliers need him to be a top-15 shooting guard.
Anyway, Roberson's defense is legit. He can harass everyone from point guards to certain power forwards and shows little wear when swarming pick-and-rolls without end. He earned a second-team All-Defensive nod in 2016-17, and him snagging some Defensive Player of the Year love isn't out of the question. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were the only wings to save more points on the less glamorous side, according to NBA Math.
Roberson's role is especially pivotal with the Thunder gunning for the Golden State Warriors. In the wake of OKC's Carmelo Anthony trade, he'll move back to the 2 with Paul George at the 3 and Anthony at the 4. He is the buffer that prevents George from defending power forwards, Anthony from having to match up with explosive wings and Russell Westbrook from exhausting himself versus pick-and-roll maestros.
Expecting anything more out of Roberson on offense is wishful thinking. His three-point looks could mushroom in difficulty since defenses will be away from the basket chasing Oklahoma City's perimeter firepower rather than packing the paint against Westbrook drives.
Yet even without an offensive uptick, Roberson's defensive activity should propel him up the shooting guard ladder.
14. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, 44.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 13.6 PER, 1.66 RPM, -58.86 TPA
Why yes, you should be signing up for an unleashed Victor Oladipo.
This endorsement won't mean much for the Indiana Pacers. Perhaps they contend for a low-end playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, or maybe they plunge to the bottom of the standings. Their roster doesn't allot for much certainty beyond that.
Whatever happens, Oladipo should enjoy something of a bounce-back campaign. Both the Thunder (Westbrook) and Orlando Magic (Elfrid Payton) displaced him from the ball by the end of his tenure with those respective clubs. The Pacers have a wealth of other ball-handlers in Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Lance Stephenson, but Oladipo is their guy—the crown jewel of the impressively bad George trade.
Given the opportunity to reverse-engineer his declining usage rate, run some more pick-and-rolls and capitalize on a cornerstone's green light, Oladipo should look back at 2017-18 as a career year—even if that doesn't ferry Indiana past the 33-win mark.
13. Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 39.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 10.1 PER, 1.26 RPM, 85.11 TPA
Picture Roberson, but with a three-point stroke, better vision and a birthday before 1990.
Hello, Danny Green.
The San Antonio Spurs have a way of turning nothings into somethings, but Green is a genuinely good NBA player. He splits a hyperactive defensive workload with Leonard, going toe-to-toe with springy wings and point guards. He is one of the league's best shot-blocking wings and is shrewd in forcing turnovers.
Green shoots gaps when coming around screens on pick-and-rolls, ambushing ball-handlers before release. He'll also front players, deliberately tangling bodies, when dropping back off switches to deny the ball and force turnovers.
Last year marked the fifth time Green cleared two steals and 1.5 blocks per 100 possessions. Just two other guards have ever matched or exceeded that total: Wade and Jerry Reynolds.
Sure, it seems like Green has missed more momentum-shifting three-pointers post-2014 than anyone in the league, and he doesn't offer much creation outside extra passes. But he put down 37.9 percent of his long balls in 2016-17 and is at 40.1 percent since joining the Spurs. He remains the consummate three-and-D specialist.
12. Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 40.8 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 12.4 PER, -0.77 RPM, -36.48 TPA
Rodney Hood doesn't land this high if the Utah Jazz don't lose Gordon Hayward. They need a featured scorer, and he fits the bill better than anyone else.
Joe Johnson, 36, is too old to ferry that responsibility. Donovan Mitchell's summer-league exploits won't leak over to the regular season in totality. Alec Burks will still be lucky to see the floor, and Dante Exum needs to find his identity as a passer and jump-shooter before entering this fray.
That leaves Hood, who has the chops to make waves as a leading scorer if he reworks his shot selection. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:
"About 30 percent of Hood's shots came in the floater zone between 3 and 16 feet from the rim, a share that ranked in the 90th percentile among wing players, according to research from Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass. Trade a few of those for drives and 3s, and Utah will have something. Hood could average 20 per game this season, but will they be the kind of points that lead to winning?
"Hood earned only two free throws per game last season; Utah will ache for cheap points, and Hood can supply some if he drives more. He'll have to dodge heavy traffic when both Favors and Gobert are on the floor."
Getting Hood to abandon bad habits will be closer to a cinch when he's guaranteed touches. He seemed to be battling against the grain a bit within an equal-opportunity offense that added Johnson and George Hill while facilitating the breakout of Joe Ingles—not unlike Burks did upon the arrival of head coach Quin Snyder.
Bet on a higher-usage role, along with a healthier right knee, doing wonders for Hood's attention to detail—from the decisions he makes on drives to the time he spends as a secondary pick-and-roll initiator and a greater willingness to let it fly off the catch.
11. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 42.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.6 PER, -1.30 RPM, -131.20 TPA
Two players in NBA history have totaled more than 1,500 points and 250 assists during a single season before their 21st birthday: James and Devin Booker.
This shouldn't completely alter your view of Booker. Defensive metrics still hate him. He finished 451st out of 468 players in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus. His reads as the primary ball-handler aren't great. He shot under 40 percent when running pick-and-rolls, and an expanded offensive role barely nudged his assist rate.
Here's the thing: Booker is still so damn young. He won't turn 21 until after the season begins. Drastically increasing his volume as a sophomore without incurring a demonstrative dip in efficiency is a fairly large victory.
Added efficiency will come with time, even if the defense doesn't. Booker should see his free-throw rate climb as he improves his decision-making off the bounce, and his work out of the pick-and-roll should get a boost as Marquese Chriss works on his rolling and the Phoenix Suns, presumably, strive to place more bodies beyond the arc.
Quarter-season samples come laced with caveats, but after the All-Star break, the Suns nearly scored like an average offense with Booker in the lineup. Unfortunately for them, that's saying something. And while his splits without Bledsoe ruined those feel-good vibes, Booker has the raw offensive pizzazz to make the leap from novelty volume scorer to essential centerpiece.
10. Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks, 40.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 15.8 PER, 0.95 RPM, 67.83 TPA
Nicolas Batum's stock should be so much higher. Playing a majority share of his minutes at the 2 spot hurts him, as it limits him.
Wing slots can be interchangeable in the right situations—look at the Boston Celtics—but the Charlotte Hornets aren't built to let him dabble at the 4, where his handles and first step remain a distinct advantage. His declining three-point shot isn't helping matters. He's shooting 33.6 percent over the past three seasons, compared to 36.9 through his first six, which complicates his role beside other ball-handlers and spacing liabilities.
Kemba Walker has capped the damage by transforming into one of the league's premier off-ball weapons. He placed in the 97th percentile of spot-up efficiency last season, and Charlotte doesn't hesitate to use him as a situational cutter.
The upshot: Batum has a hollow impact without that type of crutch. The Hornets offense takes a nosedive when he plays while Walker is on the bench, and leveraging his playmaking under any circumstances has become a chore.
Among the 76 players to run at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions last season, Batum posted the second-highest turnover rate (23.7) and third-lowest effective field-goal percentage (37.3). Throw it back to 2015-16, and the results aren't too encouraging. He shot much better (50.9 percent effective field-goal clip) but finished dead last in turnover rate (29.2) among the 69 players to use 200 or more of these sets.
Squeezing him into the top 10 is a nod to his persisting defensive value. Charlotte allowed more points per 100 possessions when he played last year, but he's an active switcher and works well in tandem with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Hornets defend like a top-five team when they play together and get to distribute non-center assignments more liberally.
Some optimistic forecasting is also at play here. Although Charlotte still doesn't have the personnel to make way for Batum at the 4, the addition of rookie Malik Monk should help him find an offensive equilibrium even when Walker isn't on the court. Two crafty shot-making and -creating sidekicks are better than one, so Batum's life should get easier both on and off the rock.
9. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Los Angeles Lakers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 39.9 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 12.8 PER, -0.60 RPM, 45.05 TPA
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could easily be excluded from this list altogether...if you're in the business of writing off 20-somethings who verged on primo-breakout status for half the 2016-17 campaign.
Before suffering a strained rotator cuff in his left shoulder on Jan. 12, Caldwell-Pope averaged 14.9 points, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals per game while putting down 40.4 percent of his three-pointers—including 44 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys. No Detroit Pistons starter registered a better net rating, he emerged as a viable pick-and-roll trigger man and his defensive assignments varied more than anyone else's.
This doesn't absolve him of a terrible finish. His efficiency plummeted over his final 37 appearances, and Detroit's defense stunk something awful with him in the lineup, vomiting 110.6 points per 100 possessions. But the same can be said for almost every other starter.
Caldwell-Pope will enjoy more complementary helping hands with the Los Angeles Lakers. Lonzo Ball is immediately—[LaVar Ball voice]—the most unselfish point guard he's ever played alongside. His three-point accuracy, which has never cleared the league average, should explode.
Unlike Andre Drummond, Brook Lopez has range that extends beyond the restricted area, out to the three-point line. Caldwell-Pope will have the room and surrounding shooters to wage more meaningful drives. He'll still have to rotate like mad on defense, but Ingram should be the partner in crime he never had with the Pistons; they only ever deployed KCP-Stanley Johnson dyads in small doses.
Touches could become an issue. Caldwell-Pope will be the third pick-and-roll option behind Ball and Brandon Ingram, so his passing and scoring numbers won't wow. But he doesn't need to be a volume anything. He'll see more backdoor opportunities—a la Avery Bradley and Gary Harris—and have a greater opportunity to clarify what has become a blurry, if simultaneously overrated and underrated, defensive reputation.
8. Avery Bradley, Detroit Pistons
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.4 PER, -2.16 RPM, -18.50 TPA
Defensive regression has nothing to do with sticking Bradley this "low"—in large part because it's an overexaggerated spin.
Plenty of metrics show slippage. The Celtics allowed more points per 100 possessions with Bradley on the floor last season. That held true even after the All-Star break, when they performed exponentially better as a collective. And his value as a closeout and one-on-one defender noticeably dipped compared to 2015-16, according to NBA Math's Play-Type Profiles.
But more than two-thirds of Bradley's minutes came next to Isaiah Thomas, one of the NBA's foremost defensive liabilities. Boston used him to mask a lot of the mismatches, while also throwing him on bigger wings at times to spare Jae Crowder or Marcus Smart.
Bradley won't have to worry about that as much with Detroit if Reggie Jackson's knee is right. He remains a smothering on-ball presence and stormy pick-and-roll pest.
Sustaining his offensive contributions figures to be the issue. More than 65 percent of Bradley's looks came with one dribble or less. The Pistons aren't set up to float that role. They don't have the other established assassins to manufacture high-quality catch-and-shoot looks, and plugging Drummond in the middle bogs down off-ball slashing. They found some success using cutters last year, but most of those scenarios were earmarked for the bigs, and only the Los Angeles Clippers and Toronto Raptors turned to these plays less frequently.
Matching his scoring output over the past two seasons (15.6 points per game) will demand Bradley run more pick-and-rolls and generally create for himself—a shaky transition that could be made even harder depending on Jackson's performance. Bradley deserves the benefit of the doubt, and his ceiling sniffs the top five or six. But the potential disparity between offensive functions must give way to this hedge.
7. Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 50.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 16.5 PER, 0.51 RPM, 58.39 TPA
Harris is nothing if not adaptive. He has seamlessly segued from a higher-usage role at Michigan State into a low-to-modest one with the Denver Nuggets.
That progression mustn't be taken for granted, even if Harris has never been billed as a volume chucker. Selling scorers in their early 20s on a complementary role isn't a mindless pitch.
Ceding touches and status to Nikola Jokic might fog developmental lines if you're not making the correct off-ball reads and committing to cuts and consistent movement. Emmanuel Mudiay's future is at least partially up in the air if he doesn't blend accessory duty with his preferred position on-ball.
Leaning into the Klay Thompson-light stereotype has looked good on Harris, though. He feasts off an intuitive connection with Jokic and a willingness to remain in near-constant motion. As FanRag Sports' Shane Young wrote:
"The only guards to record at least 120 'cut' possessions last season were Tony Allen (169) and Klay Thompson (138). Thompson, a top 20 NBA player, had a scoring frequency (either a made field goal or free throws) on 69.6 percent of those possessions. Harris was on the same level despite lower volume, scoring at a 68.1 percent frequency.
"Out of all players with at least 90 cut possessions, Harris ranked 12th in points per possession (1.39). He was the highest guard, edging out Thompson's 1.37 mark. For him to be in the conversation with someone of Thompson's caliber is the only evidence you need of him being underrated. Although it's just scoring off cuts, that's a crucial and valuable component of a team's offense—it opens the door for teammates to get clearer looks, and helps a unit become more cohesive and unpredictable through passing."
Operating around both Jokic and Paul Millsap will open up more of the same for Harris. His 46.6 percent success rate on spot-up threes coupled with basic pick-and-roll instincts will help diversify the Nuggets' offense, but his off-ball motion will be instrumental in jimmying up space amid a frontcourt pileup.
6. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 27.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 24.0 PER, 0.17 RPM, 46.52 TPA
Take stock of all DeRozan's weaknesses, and he's still an asset. He cannot make threes (yet), but he sends defenses into dysfunctional tizzies using the threat of his anywhere-range inside the three-point arc. He keeps rivals guessing with a mix of hesitations and pull-ups out of the pick-and-roll, while his (sparse) work as a cutter and lights-out swishing on runners force opponents to acknowledge his existence before he journeys inside the arc.
DeRozan's foul-line accuracy is an organic floor-spacer as well. He's shot under 80 percent from the charity stripe just once for his career, as a rookie.
Sag off him to prevent gimmes at the free-throw line, and he'll blitz into the middle; he averaged more attempts per game in the paint than anyone else last season. Crowd him, and you're susceptible to giving up an easy two points—or more. His and-1 frequency out of the pick-and-roll (2.7) is in lockstep with those from Giannis Antetokounmpo (2.9) and LeBron James (3.0)
None of which entirely erases his faults. DeRozan is borderline hopeless on defense. He veers too far away from stationary shooters when guarding off the ball, inviting them to make a beeline for the basket or the other side of the court, and offenses attack him in space, from the top of the key, whenever the Toronto Raptors don't have time to stash him on more idle threats.
On of top of that, DeRozan hasn't yet established himself as a strong solo performer. The Raptors scored like a bottom-10 offense whenever he took the floor without Cory Joseph and Kyle Lowry last season. They were even worse in 2015-16, piling on points with the efficiency of a bottom-two machine, according to NBA Wowy.
This development is more puzzling than damning since DeRozan is so crafty out of the pick-and-roll this shouldn't be a concern. He can defer to microscopic sample sizes for now, but Joseph's exit will result in more time alone as the de facto point guard.
Barring a breakout safety net—such as Fred VanVleet or Delon Wright—this will be the season DeRozan's offensive value gets put to the defining test.
5. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 48.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 20.1 PER, 2.25 RPM, 114.25 TPA
Disclaimer: DeRozan, Bradley Beal and he-who-cannot-yet-be-named at No. 4 are so very close. Package them together, and re-order them however you like. The results will be anything but terribly wrong.
Beal jumps past DeRozan by virtue of the building-block tiebreak. Start a franchise from square one, and you'd rather have him over DeRozan—a simple, yet decisive, fact that only fractionally relates to a youthful edge on his four-year-older counterpart.
Defense doesn't sway the argument one way or another. Beal is less of a liability—which, cool. He has more switch-friendly defenders around him than DeRozan. He's also more opportunistic. He'll swipe at the rock while playing off it without completely abandoning his cover, and his ball denial is pretty good when he's not being run through the ringer.
Both Beal and DeRozan even share in their me-time struggles. The Washington Wizards barely scored like a top-15 offense last year when Beal played without John Wall. And they put up bottom-five marks during 2015-16 in the 465 minutes he logged alone, according to NBA Wowy.
Still, Beal represents the area in which DeRozan and Harris collide to form one player. He has traded in crummy long twos for three-pointers and drives while improving his efficiency and upping his free-throw-attempt rate. He can get you a bucket from scratch but works to get open off the ball on cuts and runarounds.
Teams can assemble top-level offenses around that player. The Wizards may never lengthen his lone-wolf leash with Wall monopolizing point guard duties, and he doesn't initiate nearly as many pick-and-rolls as other off-guards. But he has the shot selection and on-the-bounce ingenuity to assume more responsibility should the situation call for it. That Washington even mustered average output with him working independent of Wall in 2016-17 proves as much.
4. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks, 48.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 19.9 PER, 1.14 RPM, 61.96 TPA
CJ McCollum earns the go-ahead over the clump of guards behind him because of his experience playing away from Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers know they have an offensive blueprint with him as the focal point because they're already using it.
In the nearly 400 minutes McCollum logged as the primary playmaker (as in, without Lillard and Evan Turner), the Blazers piled on 106.4 points per 100 possessions—identical to a 14th-place standing. Beal fared slightly better on his own but doesn't get to run unchaperoned as often.
Case in point: Through the 1,000-plus ticks McCollum spent piloting the show in 2015-16, Portland put up 106.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Wowy—the mark of a top-seven offense.
Gaining complete control of the reins is harder than ever, with both Lillard and Turner in the rotation, but McCollum still wields a cornerstone's punch. The Blazers put him in more pick-and-rolls than Washington did Beal, and he guzzles through more pull-up jumpers than almost anyone.
His knack for putting down these shots is part of why the offense may not feel the absence of the sharpshooting Allen Crabbe: He doesn't need space to generate offense—or even to manufacture more space.
McCollum protects possession like he isn't a high-usage ball-handler, even though he burns more dribbles per touch than DeRozan, another low-turnover freelancer. He doesn't pass with incredible volume, which should make him predictable. It doesn't. He averaged more than five assists per 100 possessions and converted a higher percentage of his contested looks than the masterful Kyrie Irving, without submitting much volume.
How do you stop someone who moonlights or outright thrives in every offensive area? You can't, and defenses don't. McCollum literally finished as a net plus in every offensive play type, per NBA Math. His defense remains a mess across the board, but his offensive armory is transcendent, and he shoulders a little more of the burden than someone like Beal.
3. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 steals, 46.8 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.4 PER, 2.33, RPM, 16.53 TPA
Thompson is not underrated.
He is, however, most definitely underappreciated.
Other All-Stars in the heart of their prime wouldn't accept, let alone embrace, the concessions he has, by all appearances, welcomed with bemused facial expressions and tireless off-ball work.
Just under 54 percent of Thompson's shot attempts originated off the catch last season. Over 80 percent came without taking more than one dribble. He ranked second on the Warriors in attempts per 36 minutes, but he isn't granted the same license for deviation awarded to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant or, as a ball-handler, Draymond Green.
Backing down the occasional smaller wing is fine, and Golden State permits him to jump-start the infrequent pick-and-roll. But even those diversions are fewer and farther between following Durant's arrival.
Run off screens, cut, fire. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Special circumstances have helped make Thompson. Around half his looks are open and wide-open bunnies because he's enveloped by a dynasty's worth of superstars. But that role isn't for everyone.
Irving couldn't play sidekick to LeBron James in Cleveland. Thompson is forfeiting status to a trio of teammates, and it doesn't compromise his diligence. He switches onto point guards, jostles with bigger wings and cuts like he means it. He flies around, every which way, like a human pinball.
No one on the Warriors covered more defensive ground this past year, and only Curry exceeded his travel on the offensive end. Thompson is a workaholic whether he's dropping 40 or 14—a top-25 player masquerading as Golden State's fourth wheel.
2. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 45.5 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 25.1 PER, 6.62 RPM, 384.82 TPA
Jimmy Butler gets lumped in with the shooting guards after qualifying as a forward last season because the Timberwolves don't have the personnel to keep him in the frontcourt. They'll trot out two bigs most of the time, and Andrew Wiggins spent more of his minutes at the 4 than the 2 in 2016-17.
So, here we are.
Tying Butler to a specific position is pretty arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. Shooting guard, small forward, even power forward—his 6'7" build can stand up to it all. His transformation into a full-blown, All-NBA superstar is of far greater consequence.
As Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver wrote, he has undergone a Kawhi Leonard-esque metamorphosis:
"Although he first made his name in the NBA through tireless and physical defending, Butler has evolved into an all-around scoring threat who bulldozes to the foul line, effectively runs the pick-and roll and creates something out of nothing in isolation. If Butler even comes close to replicating his 2017 All-NBA Third Team campaign this season, the new-and-improved Timberwolves should have no problem snapping a postseason drought that dates back to 2004."
Butler carried a sorry-sack Bulls squad into the Eastern Conference playoffs while leaving a megahuman's dent. James and Leonard were the only wings—shooting guard or small forward—to post a better RPM. Antetokounmpo, Harden and James were the only ones to tally larger TPA scores.
And yet, pinpointing Butler's rank relative to other wings loses some luster because it's now secondary to a larger conversation: his ditching the "specialist" label in favor of MVP undercurrents.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 44.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 27.4 PER, 4.81 RPM, 626.23 TPA
After an absurdly productive 2016-17, during which he juggled the roles of point guard and scoring lifeline, Harden is now the type of star who draws in peers already surrounded by other peers. As his new teammate Chris Paul said at the Houston Rockets' media day (via The Dream Shake's Darren Yuvan):
"You got some guys who like and enjoy playing basketball, but then you got some who love it. He is one of the guys who loves it. And he's damn good. I think the thing that gets overlooked with James a lot of the time is how selfless he is, how much he loves people. He loves people to be around him and he wants to see other people succeed and other people do good."
Harden created more points off assists than anyone in the league last year (2,198). Combine that with his own 2,356 points, and he accounted for 48.1 percent of the total offense—a remarkable weight with Houston placing second in efficiency and winning 55 games.
Incorporating Paul will change Harden's role, displacing him from the ball and, ultimately, stripping him of the Rockets' point guard throne. And that's fine. He hits enough of his catch-and-shoot looks (38.9 percent from three), and his disarming hesitations could translate into some interesting finishes as an off-ball slasher.
Plus, the Rockets won't just purge the offense of Harden's on-ball work. His drives are too integral, and he throws opponents off-kilter with his pull-ups—even when they're not going in. Very few players manipulate defenses like him. Paul is one of them. The Rockets will find a happy medium between the two.
Best-case scenario: Trading off alpha duties with Paul gives Harden the stamina to do more on defense than battle fatigue, appear disinterested and sporadically disrupt pick-and-rolls without taking away much, if anything, from an offensive routine that's earned him two consecutive runner-up finishes in the MVP race.