Metrics 101: Who Are the NBA's Best Sidekicks?
Serving as an NBA sidekick isn't a bad thing.
Not everyone can be LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Precious few players are capable of contributing quite like Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard. And if you're not in a category like that, you can still make an impact by maximizing your talents as a leading member of a supporting cast.
Even on teams like the Golden State Warriors with a plethora of leading stars, sidekicks—not merely the equivalent of a "second option"—are crucial. Ditto for organizations like the Orlando Magic that are winning with a by-committee approach.
But how do we properly delineate between the alphas and the sidekicks?
First, we'll rule out injured players in our search for the league's premier second-fiddle standouts. If you're out for a prolonged period, you're automatically ineligible. Secondly, we'll eliminate anyone with a usage rate above 24 percent or an assist percentage over 30 percent. Fifty-eight and 24 qualified players sit above those respective cutoff marks, and they're far too involved on the offensive end to fit the description we're seeking.
Of course, defense matters.
Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green would still be eligible if we stopped here, and that's silly. They're too integral as the leaders of their teams' stopping units to be considered sidekicks. For that reason, players can't have led their squads in NBA Math's defensive points saved either last season or so far this year.
Once we culled the NBA fraternity into the resulting pool of eligible players, a bit of subjectivity had to take over. Numbers matter when evaluating these talents, but the samples from 2017-18 are still too small to treat them as gospel. The sustainability of hot starts and cold openings was taken into account, such that these rankings feature the sidekicks the world should reasonably expect to play at the highest level for the remainder of the campaign.
Will Barton, SG, Denver Nuggets
Will Barton's growth as a three-point shooter who can capably create his own offense or set up his teammates has made him an indispensable piece off the Denver Nuggets' bench. But until he shores up his defensive deficiencies or proves his massive leap as a perimeter marksman is legitimate, he'll remain just outside the featured spots.
Jae Crowder, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Considering how valuable Jae Crowder was during his final season with the Boston Celtics, this might be downright shocking. But the small forward has slashed only 39.7/28.6/78.3 during his initial run for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he might still be playing better on offense than defense, where he constantly looks out of place and has been a direct cause for the reigning Eastern Conference champions' putrid preventing work. He may bounce back and elevate up the rankings, but that's not currently justifiable.
Serge Ibaka, PF, Toronto Raptors
Serge Ibaka's game lends itself to production in two areas: stretchiness out of the frontcourt and defensive excellence around the rim. A return to form would allow him to shoot up these rankings and out of the honorable mentions, but not while he's knocking down just 34.9 percent of his triples and submitting the worst defensive box plus/minus (minus-1.0) of his career. The Toronto Raptors have actually been 7.7 points per 100 possessions worse while he's on the floor.
Apologies to these gentlemen, among others, who either don't have the necessary track record to justify potentially unsustainable performances or just haven't produced like expected during 2017-18's opening salvo: Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Harrison Barnes, Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, DeMarre Carroll, Rudy Gay, George Hill, Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala, Kyle Kuzma, Jeremy Lamb, Robin Lopez, Lauri Markkanen, Wesley Matthews, Kelly Olynyk, JJ Redick, Andre Roberson, Domantas Sabonis, Marcus Smart, Tony Snell, Jayson Tatum, Dwyane Wade
10. Danilo Gallinari, SF, Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks
At this stage of his tenure with the Los Angeles Clippers, Danilo Gallinari might have trouble throwing a basketball into the Pacific Ocean while standing on the edge of Santa Monica Pier. He's shooting just 35.5 percent from the field, 26.0 percent from downtown and 96.3 percent from the charity stripe—a sign that his percentages might soon be on the rise and the portion of the slash line keeping his true shooting percentage from plummeting into abominable territory.
And yet, he's still having an impact in his new location.
Though Gallinari should start to showcase more production as his hip contusion heals and he continues to gain chemistry with his running mates, his ability to serve as a secondary distributor, play defense against a number of different positions and generate trips to the charity stripe has allowed him to overcome his shooting woes. He's by no means been the star Los Angeles was seeking when inking him to a new deal this summer, but that's perfectly fine.
Versatility makes this Italian forward tick, and that hasn't been sapped away by his inability to find twine even while relying on spot-up shooting more than he has in previous seasons. One year after requiring assists on just 50.2 percent of his made twos for the Denver Nuggets, he's using set-up feeds on a career-high 56 percent of makes inside the arc. He's getting good looks and playing a team game; the shots just aren't dropping yet.
That's what enables Gallinari to maintain a featured spot, even if he's struggled thus far in 2017-18. His season will start turning around soon enough, allowing him to re-assert himself as a terrific player with no business serving as any team's alpha dog.
9. Evan Fournier, SG, Orlando Magic
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks
Evan Fournier probably isn't going to shoot 47.4 percent on his deep attempts while taking 5.7 per game throughout the 2017-18 campaign. But even as that first number falls back to earth and drags his per-contest scoring average below the magical 20-point threshold, this 25-year-old shooting guard will leave little doubt he's improved his game rather drastically.
Though that three-point percentage is unsustainable, Fournier looks the part of a more confident marksman. Whether he's working off the bounce for a pull-up attempt, spotting up in search of a teammate's feed or throwing daggers at the charity stripe, he's a deadlier scorer than ever before.
That confidence has pervaded the rest of his game, as well.
Fournier is keeping his eyes up while attacking the basket and looking for dimes of the dump-off and kick-out varieties. He's knocking down more mid-range attempts and taking advantage of whatever vacated space exists. He's even playing the best defense of his career, contesting more shots with his 6'7" frame and maintaining proper positioning on nearly every play.
Most importantly, the Magic know how to use him. They aren't force-feeding him the rock in any one situation, so much as expanding the ways in which they play to his strengths. Whether he's running pick-and-rolls or wearing out defenders by weaving his way through screens, he's at home in this Orlando offense.
Though Fournier only turned 25 in late October, just two days before Halloween, this is already his sixth NBA season. Apparently, that's the perfect time for a post-hype breakout.
8. Joe Ingles, SF, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Joe Ingles re-signed with the Utah Jazz for four years and $52 million this offseason, but the early returns are already making that contract look inappropriate.
It's not that the 30-year-old small forward is failing to justify that type of expenditure; he's instead been one of the Salt Lake City's most impressive contributors, earning every penny of that deal and then some. Ingles might not have the game of a scoring superstar, but his ability to contribute efficient points while thriving in just about every other area makes him invaluable.
How nice is it for Ricky Rubio to have a secondary ball-handler waiting to make an impact from a non-traditional spot on the floor? Ingles is averaging 3.4 assists per game while turning it over just 1.8 times per contest, and he's set up quite a few teammates while running oversized pick-and-rolls.
When the ball isn't in his hands, though, he remains valuable through sheer gravitational pull. Defenders were hesitant to slide over in his direction last year, but he's left them no choice by following up his breakout campaign (44.1 percent from downtown on 3.4 attempts per game) with a 48.1 percent clip on 5.2 long-range attempts per appearance. Scoring 1.26 points per spot-up possession, he sits in the 82.2 percentile.
As if that's not enough, he's continued to assert himself as a beneficial defender, capable of bodying up against bigger players and using his lateral mobility and quick hands to stifle backcourt foes. Ingles has become a legitimate two-way standout while remaining one of the NBA's deadliest marksmen and a capable facilitator.
How many other players can claim such a varied skill set?
7. Patrick Beverley, PG, Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
We've already covered why Patrick Beverley has become one of the NBA's most underappreciated players in quite a bit of detail. Turnovers have served as one of his only true weaknesses, since he's a devastating spot-up threat, a capable facilitator and one of the league's most fearsome defensive presences.
But what might be even more impressive is his ability to thrive as a sidekick to such dramatically different superstars.
James Harden and Blake Griffin aren't exactly the same players. The former is a guard who initiates almost all offense while on the floor and thrives driving to the hoop for contested finishes or whistles that send him to the stripe. The latter draws opposing bigs out of the paint rather than sucking them into it on those drives, though he's more than capable of working from the blocks, as well.
Beverley can work alongside either, as he's demonstrated over the last two years.
With the Houston Rockets, he took over half his shots from beyond the rainbow each and every season of his professional career. This go-round, his first with the Los Angeles Clippers, that three-point attempt rate has dropped to 47.0 percent, and Beverley has instead gone to work in a number of new areas.
He's finishing more plays around the hoop and taking more mid-range jumpers—both changes that can be attributed to him altering his style to take advantage of the power forward-devoid painted area when Griffin is operating on the perimeter.
Apparently, he's not just an ideal sidekick but also an amorphous one who can cater to the needs of his most notorious running mate.
6. Gary Harris, SG, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
If you're seeking a player who looks the part of a sidekick, Gary Harris might be your top choice.
The Michigan State product is never going to serve as the unbridled leader of the Denver Nuggets offense. He's best as a complementary piece who plays off the talents of his teammates, taking advantage of defensive lapses and opportunistically cutting to the hoop rather than working with the ball in his hands.
But let's use a couple of numbers to back that up.
With his 13.0 points per game (on an efficient slash line of 50.5/46.9/71.4), Harris ranks No. 93 throughout the NBA, sandwiched directly between Darren Collison and Serge Ibaka. And yet, he sits at No. 184 in touches per game (encircled by Malik Monk and Marcus Morris), No. 180 in time of possession per game (between Morris and Julius Randle) and No. 212 in average seconds per touch (bookended by Andre Drummond and Skal Labissiere). He's in no way commandeering possessions.
Plus, we can look at how his shots go through the hoop. Of the 23 triples he's already drained in 2017-18, every single one has resulted from a teammate's assist. And among the 142 players this year who have made at least one deep attempt and required set-up passes on all their conversions, only Klay Thompson, Robert Covington and Ryan Anderson have made more.
Harris, both by the eye test and the numbers, has become an ideal offensive sidekick.
5. Tobias Harris, SF, Detroit Pistons
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks
Tobias Harris barely qualified for these rankings.
Not because he wasn't good enough to earn admission, but because he's dangerously close to losing his sidekick status. The 25-year-old's usage rate has grown during each season he's spent with the Detroit Pistons, and it currently sits at 23.3 percent—just shy of the 24 percent threshold at which players lose eligibility.
Harris isn't involved enough as a distributor to worry about that cut-off, and his defense remains rather porous. But even the slightest uptick in offensive involvement would knock him out of the running.
Not that such a development would be a bad thing, of course.
After all, the former Tennessee standout has earned his increased responsibilities with the Pistons, thriving as they lean on him for more and more offensive production. The respect he's earned from defenses opens up opportunities for the new-and-improved Andre Drummond, creates driving lanes for Reggie Jackson and avoids gumming up any of Detroit's half-court sets.
With Harris on the floor, the Motor City is putting up 110.9 points per 100 possessions—not quite in the same category as the world-beating Golden State Warriors (118.2), but in a tier of its own ahead of the Houston Rockets (108.4) and the rest of the pack. Without him, that offensive rating slumps to just 95.4, leaving it superior to only the mark produced by the Chicago Bulls (91.7), whose offense doesn't exactly resemble, well, an offense.
That on/off differential (15.5 points per 100 possessions) is the largest on the roster, topping those produced by Jackson (14.4), Drummond (10.3), Avery Bradley (5.3) and every other key piece. He may qualify here as a sidekick to the hulking big man, but he's become the Pistons' offensive fulcrum.
4. Aaron Gordon, PF, Orlando Magic
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.9 blocks
As Rohan Nadkarni helped explain for Sports Illustrated, the surprising Orlando Magic are finally embracing modern NBA basketball:
"This year, the Magic have seen what a little spacing can do. With [Serge] Ibaka gone, and [head coach Frank] Vogel seemingly embracing 21st-century basketball concepts, [Aaron] Gordon has surged early this season, and the Magic have become much more threatening offensively. Gordon is playing with the freedom of a little brother who no longer has to share a room with his pack-rat older sibling, and the returns have been promising."
Though Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic—the objective alpha in Orlando this year—have been huge beneficiaries of the added spacing, no player has grown more than Aaron Gordon. After years of frustratingly stunted development that stemmed from using him in ill-advised situations and attempting to pigeonhole him into a perimeter role, Orlando is finally letting the power forward blossom.
He's thriving in the pick-and-roll game. He's punishing defenders who don't respect his pull-up jumper while handling the rock. He's spotting up on the perimeter and splashing the ball through twine. And while his shooting numbers are unsustainable, his confidence isn't.
The hitch in his jumper is gone, replaced by a smoother and shorter stroke that allows for more consistency, as well as a speedier release. The mentality that he always needed to punish players with his athleticism is gone, replaced by recognition of matchup advantages and the cerebral wherewithal to exploit them even when doing so requires patience.
Most of all, the disappointing potential draft bust is gone, replaced by a legitimate star.
Gordon qualifies for the sidekick countdown right now. Just don't be surprised when the Magic keep feeding him, and his 22.7 percent usage rate creeps north of 24.
3. Paul Millsap, PF, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.7 blocks
Thus far, Paul Millsap has been rather disappointing for the Denver Nuggets.
He's shooting just 43.7 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from downtown and 71.1 percent from the free-throw line. His assist numbers have plummeted, to the point that he's having trouble recording more dimes than turnovers on any given night. Even his defense has suffered as he adjusts to his new teammates, since he's being asked to fill a vastly different role than his free-safety responsibilities with the Atlanta Hawks.
But that's why we're not basing these rankings purely on what's already come to pass in 2017-18.
Millsap will be just fine.
The 32-year-old power forward remains a game-changing defender with a versatile offensive skill set buoyed by a mind-warping pump fake, and he's shown flashes of that all-around excellence in more recent outings. Buying into such a gigantic and all-encompassing decline would be foolish, just as it would be ridiculous to prop up players whose starts are both scorching and wholly unsustainable. Logic is required, even when using numbers as a central part of analysis.
Plus, Millsap only just qualifies as a sidekick.
His 23.9 percent usage rate is his lowest in the last three years, driven down slightly by Denver's willingness to share the rock and generate offense in a variety of manners. Even though he's served as a fringe Defensive Player of the Year candidate, he was outdone in NBA Math's defensive points saved by Dwight Howard last season. Everything worked in his favor by the slimmest of margins, allowing a man who's represented the Eastern Conference in the All-Star game each of the last four seasons to gain entry.
Of course, all these previously discussed factors do still matter. Millsap has been better than any other qualified sidekick in recent years, but age and adjustment struggles in the Mile High City combine to push him below one up-and-comer and another established star in these rankings.
2. Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.3 blocks
The NBA's best example of a Dothraki bloodrider, Steven Adams thrives as an enforcer, pick-and-roll scorer, defender and doer-of-all-the-little things in the Oklahoma City Thunder khalasar led by Russell Westbrook.
It's a role he's filled in the past, but a couple of slight changes have allowed him to break out during this latest campaign, becoming the player into which the Thunder have always hoped he'd morph. Not only is he posting the best defensive box plus/minus of his career while anchoring the interior of the OKC schemes, but his offensive box plus/minus has risen from minus-0.7 in 2016-17 to a staggering 3.0 in 2017-18.
According to NBA Math, his current-season TPA (37.21) already outpaces the score he accumulated throughout all of the previous campaign (24.34). At this rate, he'll surpass his career-high mark (85.2 in 2015-16) in just 12 more appearances.
Adams isn't taking any mid-range jumpers. That's not any different. He's still a limited offensive presence who does the vast majority of his damage right at the rim. But he's showing just a bit more patience and touch in the restricted area, allowing him to finish 70 percent of his attempts from within three feet. During each of the last two go-rounds, that number stood at 65.5 percent.
More shots at the basket and a better conversion rate? Increased proficiency at the rim? Upping his points per possession as a PnR roll man from 1.09 (64.2 percentile) to 1.26 (71.8 percentile)? Turning the ball over even more infrequently? These are all marginal improvements that combine to have a larger effect.
Adams hasn't sacrificed any part of his game to become an increasingly vital part of the Oklahoma City scoring unit. He's just gotten better.
1. Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.9 blocks
Sidekicks don't typically score 21 points per game, but they also aren't usually as talented as Klay Thompson. The shooting guard continues to assert himself as one of the premier snipers in league history, draining 46.7 percent of his deep attempts while taking 7.5 per game.
But here's the rub: Every single one of those treys has come off a set-up pass from another member of the Golden State Warriors. Every. Single. One.
Even when knocking down two-point buckets, the 27-year-old requires assists on 72 percent of his makes. Twenty-eight other players this season are averaging at least 20 points per contest, and not one been less self-sufficient from inside the arc. In fact, no one has even been close—a testament to his dependence, whether induced by his personal style or the Warriors' schemes, on his teammates.
Thompson's usage rate has been lofty enough in previous seasons to disqualify him from this competition, but he's spending even more time deferring to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and the youthful Bay Area up-and-comers during the 2017-18 campaign. He's also passing the ball even more frequently, and neither innocuous passes nor actual assists contribute toward usage rate.
Were he playing as the leader of a lesser team, he'd certainly be talented enough to become more superhero than sidekick. But given his status as a secondary figure behind the aforementioned names, he's instead become the best in the league at filling a supporting-cast role, content to drain catch-and-shoot jumpers while thriving as an on-ball stopper.