NBA Player Rankings: B/R's Top 15 Point Guards Entering the 2018-19 Season
Picture a world that does not include a ranking of the NBA's best players before the 2018-19 season opens for business. Pretty sucky-feeling, right?
Luckily, that soulless post-apocalyptic dystopia you're envisioning is hypothetical. We've put on our super-villain costumes and sorted out the Association's pecking order in advance of the regular season. Our default commitment to underrating or hating your favorite player(s) will culminate in a comprehensive top-100 list, but for now, we begin with the league's top point guards.
Position designations are getting harder to determine as the NBA accentuates undefined roles and archetypes, so we're cannonballing into murky waters. Qualifications are based on a subjective mix of depth-chart setups and the exhaustive possession data available at Cleaning The Glass.
Players can fall into different categories relative to previous seasons if they switched teams or their incumbent squads underwent noticeable face-lifts. Anything that might cause them to log a lion's share of their time at a different position is on the table.
Do not interpret this as a refresher course for last year or merely a glance at the league's hierarchy as it stands. Forward-looking projections are cemented into these evaluations. Regressions, improvements, post-injury performances, role changes and the like all factor into the equation.
Basically, we're aiming to identify the best players for 2018-19 before it begins Oct. 16. And since we're rating talent according to whom we'd want to acquire for the entire season, anyone at risk of remaining on the sidelines until the calendar flips to 2019 has been stripped of their eligibility.
Enough chitchat. Let's get cracking.
Nos. 15-11: Murray, Bledsoe, Ball, Rubio, Conley
15. Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks
Murray doesn't have a stranglehold on the San Antonio Spurs' starting job, even after pushing Tony Parker off the roster and in a new role with the Charlotte Hornets, because of his ability to replicate the French floor general's skill set. He's not a devastating offensive presence who can use his speed to create open mid-range looks, and he is the latest in the line of San Antonio 1-guards who don't contribute much from beyond the arc.
No, he has the gig—and, more importantly, a spot within the top 15 of our positional rankings—because of his defense.
With his long arms, hounding mentality and intelligence on the preventing end, he helped drop the Spurs' defensive rating by a rotation-best 7.8 points per 100 possessions last year, earned a berth with the All-Defensive Second Team and submitted the league's No. 1 score among point guards in defensive real plus/minus with room to spare.
14. Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.6 blocks
Bledsoe already looked like a quality fit alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, taking on more of an off-ball role that allowed him to focus on playing pesky perimeter defense and thriving as a cutter (84th percentile for points per cutting possession). And he should be more comfortable in 2018-19. Rather than joining the Milwaukee Bucks as a midseason addition, he'll have the luxury of continuity.
But Bledsoe needs to work on a few notable flaws before he can climb into the top 10 point guards.
Most importantly, he has to find a way to rekindle his scoring efficiency, either by getting to the line more frequently or learning to hit triples at better than a 34.7 percent clip. His free-throw rate was the lowest it's been since his days with the Los Angeles Clippers, though a jump could be hard to come by when he's ceding possessions to Antetokounmpo and other ball-handling teammates.
13. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks
Ball was already a valuable presence for the Los Angeles Lakers, thriving as a wizardous facilitator and defensive ace who showcased a preternatural feel for positioning while using his quick hands to disrupt plenty of plays. Even bereft of any consistency from the perimeter while struggling at the stripe far more than he did during his brief UCLA tenure, he was a boon to the Purple and Gold.
What happens if he remembers how to shoot? What happens if he grows under the supervision of LeBron James? Even if he stagnates and remains healthy, he'll be a sneakily valuable floor general. And it's not like the 20-year-old with monumental upside is just going to tread water, especially when his shooting slashes can't reasonably fall any lower.
12. Ricky Rubio, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.1 blocks
Ricky Rubio has clearly landed in an ideal spot with the Utah Jazz.
Surrounded by a stifling defense with perimeter stoppers galore and a top-tier anchor in Rudy Gobert, he's free to gamble incessantly on the perimeter, playing with and maximizing the style he's always sought in previous stops. His passing chops pay off in the pick-and-roll game when feeding Donovan Mitchell, and his developing catch-and-shoot comfort could reap major rewards in 2018-19.
Slowly but surely, Rubio's reputation as a dismal marksman could begin shifting. He knocked down 41.0 percent of his deep looks while taking 3.5 per game during the 2018 portion of the calendar, benefitting tremendously from the opposition's unwillingness to cover him (2.5 of those attempts per contest came without a defender within six feet).
If adversaries are forced to respect his stroke, his numbers might decline while simultaneously creating heretofore unseen openings for his teammates.
11. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
Don't lend much credence to the numbers you see above because Mike Conley clearly wasn't operating at 100 percent even before injuries officially shortened his season to a meager 12 appearances. He's a far better shooter than his 38.1/31.2/80.3 slash line would indicate, especially while we're not too far removed from a 2016-17 season in which he experienced an offensive breakthrough that never seemed too unsustainable.
On the flip side, Conley will celebrate his 31st birthday in early October. His days of peak athleticism may be firmly rooted in the past, and his status as the unquestioned linchpin of the Memphis Grizzlies offense could be changing in an expeditious fashion. He's better than his 2017-18 efforts might indicate, but expecting a full return to 2016-17 glory could be overly optimistic.
10. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
A not-so-subtle leap is being cooked into Jamal Murray's placement, which might be a tad problematic when looking at the Denver Nuggets' makeup. Their offense already runs through Nikola Jokic, and Isaiah Thomas complicates the pecking order even as a second-unit sparkplug.
Tack on touches for Will Barton, now a projected starter, along with Gary Harris, and Murray may never typify the most conventional point guard role. That's fine. He doesn't need to. And the Nuggets have never tried grooming him as such.
Every one of their playmakers has essentially been developed as an off-guard around Jokic. Murray is no different. Close to 18 percent of his touches last season came off spot-up opportunities, on which he averaged 1.18 points per possession—good for the 88th percentile.
That doesn't mean the Nuggets won't look to expand his role. They will. They need to. Their depth has its limits, and Murray showed a slightly better feel for decision-making out of the pick-and-roll and looked a lot more comfortable firing up shots on a dime.
From Jan. 1 until the end of the season, in fact, he averaged 17.4 points, 3.9 assists and 1.0 steals per game while basically slashing 46/40/89. Combine this with the late-game resolve he flashed—he shot 45.5 percent on crunch-time threes after the All-Star break—and Murray has the tools to finish 2018-19 as one of the NBA's most dangerous offensive weapons.
9. John Wall, Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 9.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks
John Wall will remain difficult to evaluate against the league's elite forever and ever and ever. Wherever he falls either feels too high or too low. That's his brand.
Sticking him here has an "Are you drunk on hatorade-and-vodka?" tinge to it. He is one of the Association's premier table-setters, and the "can't shoot" trope remains a smidge overblown. He's hitting an acceptable 34 percent of his treys since 2013-14.
But something about Wall's season-long performance invariably leaves you expecting more—hence this hedge.
Though the Washington Wizards don't actively hide him on defense, his physical tools should translate to more than a bunch of steals and fleeting examples of exhaustive stopping power. He has played himself out of being a total three-point liability. But he has never cleared 35 percent shooting from beyond the arc in consecutive seasons, and his unending love affair with long two-pointers is maddening—particularly down the stretch of close games.
Last year's roller-coaster ride acts as an uncomfortable tipping point.
He didn't look right after receiving platelet-rich plasma injections in his left knee at the beginning of the season and barely made it back in time for the playoffs following surgery on that same knee toward the end of January. His first step lacked its usual explosion, and the lift on his stop-and-pop jumpers just wasn't the same. He canned 30.0 percent of his pull-up jumpers, down from 37.9 in 2016-17.
Losing Marcin Gortat—or rather, the idea of Gortat—also figures to compromise Wall's offense. Neither Dwight Howard nor Ian Mahinmi will manufacture space beyond rolls to the basket; Gortat at least had range from 10 to 16 feet. Wall will still find ways to hit his divers and corner shooters, but he could struggle to grind out his own breathing room.
8. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks
Kemba Walker continues to be among the NBA's most underappreciated stars. People have this tendency to portray him as a lower-rung alternative to Kyrie Irving or a wannabe star. He's so much more than that.
Using Walker's improved shooting as a reference point is flat-out insulting now. It implies his beefed-up accuracy is still new or fated to disappear. It's neither.
Just seven other players with a minimum of 25 appearances since 2015-16 are clearing 20 points and five assists per 36 minutes while canning at least 38 percent of their three-point attempts. Most of them are perennial All-Stars: Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Tyreke Evans, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul.
At 6'1", Walker is not an automatic finisher around the rim. The Charlotte Hornets have seldom had the frontcourt shooting necessary for the brand of floor balance that would offset his lack of size or vertical pop.
That only makes Walker's offensive ascension so much more impressive. He's reached All-Star heights with a hefty reliance on his off-the-dribble the craft. Curry, Paul, James Harden and Damian Lillard were the only other players last season to shoot at least 36 percent on more than four pull-up three-pointers per game.
Additional respect should likewise be attached to Walker's defensive stands. He's not an All-NBA gnat, but the Hornets aren't compelled to cover for him with Nicolas Batum or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist nearly as much as they could be. Walker routinely chases around Irving, Lillard, Lowry, John Wall et al. and has shown the close-out recognition required for him to help onto standstill wings. He's earned a ritzier reputation.
7. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks
Finally, after years of frolicking in an ultragray area, we can officially say it: Kyle Lowry is not the Toronto Raptors' best player. That honor now belongs to a healthy Kawhi Leonard.
For more than a half-decade, though, this imaginary crown was worn by Lowry. Many regularly argued in favor of DeMar DeRozan, but he never challenged his running mate for the distinction. Not really.
Even last season, with DeRozan playing at his peak, Lowry comfortably remained Toronto's most important body. Just look at his league ranks from last year across a handful of catch-all-metrics:
Three out of four categories view Lowry as a top-10 player, bar none. Average all four together, and he grades out as a top-16 talent. (DeRozan falls inside the top 32.)
Accounting for some regression is fine. Lowry is 32, his defensive energy dropped a tick at times last year, and kitchen-sink glances are not irreversible end-alls. But anyone who doesn't entertain his case as a borderline top-five point guard and top-20 player overall is kidding themselves.
6. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks
Irving's inaugural campaign with the Boston Celtics begs him to finish higher. He thrived as a lifeline for a squad that became unexpectedly dependent on two youngsters, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and visibly upped the energy he expended at the defensive end.
This success amid a change of scenery cannot be overstated. Irving was supposed to suffer in some form after ditching his LeBron James-sized safety net. He didn't. In more ways than one, it was he who rescued the Celtics.
Yes, they made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals without Irving. And sure, on some level, it's fair to wonder whether Al Horford is more indispensable. But Boston wouldn't have been equipped to navigate Gordon Hayward's absence all year without someone to ferry the shot-creation load.
Horford is not that guy. At the time, Brown, Tatum and Terry Rozier weren't the answer either. The Celtics had Irving. And Marcus Morris. But mostly Irving. He answered the call.
Prior to Irving's season-ending knee injury, Boston's offensive output plunged by more than seven points per 100 possessions when he took a seat. His crunch-time detonations were unreal—and needed. Only six other players attempted more shots in clutch situations, and he still managed to post a true shooting percentage within the vicinity of 60 (58.8).
Sustainability is all that holds back Irving. Even if he doesn't miss a beat following surgery on his left knee, he could incur some unintended role regression as Boston integrates Hayward and panders to the rises of Brown and Tatum.
5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks
Oversized point guards are a dream, but the 6'10" Ben Simmons is something more—the fantasy other fantasies spend time fantasizing about.
Around three-quarters of Simmons' rookie-year minutes came at the 1, according to Cleaning The Glass. Not one of them felt like the Philadelphia 76ers were reaching or forcing the issue. Simmons is at home with the ball in his hands and adjusted to the reactive flow of NBA defenses with the poise and polish of a veteran in his prime.
Parts of his offensive game will always seem solvable until he develops a pull-up jumper, a floater or any sort of familiarity outside the restricted area. But only a handful of defenses have the tools to make Simmons and the Sixers pay for his absence of range—and even they will be hard-pressed to slow him down.
Simmons doesn't create space so much as he invents it. The ease with which he sees over the top of defenders allows him to work impossible angles. He's probably one of the league's five- or seven-best passers already.
And he doesn't have to hastily work in a jumper so long as his first step gets him around defenders and he's comfortable finishing in traffic. Almost half of his attempts came inside three feet, where he shot better than 74 percent.
Expanding his range would grant Simmons instant entry into the superstar clique. But his defense might have the same effect. He's disciplined in a way most early 20-somethings are not, and the Sixers have zero qualms about moving him around.
Consider the 10 players he spent the most time guarding last year (by total possessions): Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, LeBron James, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Otto Porter Jr., Russell Westbrook, Andrew Wiggins, Taurean Prince, Jaylen Brown and Khris Middleton.
Left alone, Simmons is one of the NBA's most versatile players. Throw in some modest improvement between his rookie and sophomore seasons, and it becomes difficult to position him too far outside the top-10-player discussion.
4. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
Damian Lillard has always been that wild-card superstar—someone equally likely to chase a top-10 billing and drift outside the top 20.
Last year saw him tilt more toward the top 10. His raw shooting percentages dipped a bit, but he made up for it with a higher assist rate amid lateral usage. And given the types of shots he traffics in, the Portland Trail Blazers will welcome his efficiency.
Only James Harden jacked more pull-up three-pointers than Lillard, who put his down at a rate (36 percent) nearly identical to his overall mark from beyond the arc (36.1 percent). Among the 79 players to launch at least 150 shots after using between three and six dribbles, Lillard's effective field-goal percentage ranked eighth, putting him ahead of fellow from-scratch studs like Harden, Curry, Irving, Chris Paul and Kemba Walker.
Having someone so fluent in off-the-bounce workloads used to be a luxury. The new structure and style of today's game have morphed it into a necessity, which renders Lillard an infinitely more potent force than he was two or three years ago.
Putting him in front of Irving and Lowry—and even Simmons—is a calculated risk. Split hairs can turn Lillard's placement upside down. But he's earned the benefit of the doubt after upping his defensive intensity in 2017-18. He's making smarter reads in one-on-one situations and is no longer as prone to dying on screens.
And if he's going to blend almost-even defense with the otherworldly shot creation and ball protection, he belongs here.
3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
Russell Westbrook is everything people want and don't want him to be.
He is one of the league's most valuable and most infuriating players. He engendered contentious debates before Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the past two years, which included an MVP award, have only invited more. This man has incited discussion about the value of triple-doubles for crying out loud.
Let's get one thing straight: Russell Westbrook is a superstar. He is what happens when an unstoppable force marries an immovable object and has a baby. He can carry suboptimal teams to respectability with his interminable will. His playmaking is not up to snuff with the Chris Pauls and LeBron Jameses, but his dribble-drive bursts send defenses into unmanageable havoc.
Also: Triple-doubles are still pretty darn impressive.
But we'd be remiss to gloss over Westbrook's most glaring wart. And it ain't his defense. His effort waxes and wanes. Whatever. That happens to high-usage lifelines. His penchant for errant off-the-dribble jumpers is more damning.
Pull-up attempts have accounted for at least 47 percent of Westbrook's total shots in every season since 2013-14. Only once, in 2013-14, has he notched an effective field-goal percentage north of 45 on these looks. Last year, as the league leader in pull-up attempts, he churned out a 39.4 effective field-goal percentage—a bottom-11 mark among 73 players to hoist at least 250 such shots.
Something needs to give for Westbrook. He has to rein in his jump shots or improve his efficiency. The latter is ideal but less likely. Players don't usually take drastic leaps more than 10 years into their careers. Until something about Westbrook's approach changes, though, there will always be stretches in which he does more harm than good.
2. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.2 blocks
Chris Paul will eventually drop off the superstar radar. Maybe. We think. But don't bet on it happening anytime soon, just in case he doesn't.
Because he might not.
Joining the Houston Rockets looked good on Paul. He cold-turkeyed long twos like they were complex carbohydrates but didn't have to reinvent his style. Head coach Mike D'Antonio and his staff didn't task Paul with ditching his one-on-one inklings. They catered to them.
Houston leaned on isolations more than any other team and went out of the way to stagger Paul's minutes from Harden's court time. Separating stars is always a tactical move. Teams like to limit the amount of time they spend trying to survive without a headliner leading the charge. But the Rockets' strategy played into juggling the dynamic between Harden and Paul, both of whom are accustomed to initiating actions from on the ball.
Incorporating Carmelo Anthony into the equation will test Houston's balancing act. Paul is ready for it. He placed in the 90th and 95th percentiles of isolation and spot-up efficiency, respectively. The Rockets can work in more off-rock reps without worrying too much about curbing his impact.
Conceding more of his touches may even leave Paul with extra juice in his legs at the defensive end—which, um, yikes. He has finished lower than sixth among point guards in defensive real plus-minus just once over the past five years (2014-15). Invest in a regressive trajectory at your own peril.
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks
For as much star power as the Golden State Warriors added over the past few years, their pecking order remains the same.
There's Stephen Curry, a small country and then everyone else.
Kevin Durant occasionally garners more acclaim as Golden State's top dog. He shouldn't. He is a luxury—the greatest luxury of all time but a frill all the same.
Curry gives the Warriors their identity. Defenses bend and sometimes break just while trying to guard against the concept of what he does. His range extends beyond Earth's atmosphere, and he's as smooth when pulling up off the dribble in traffic as he is at the foul line. That he's honed a nasty floater and perfected circus-finishing around the rim is unfair. He is basketball contraband.
Durant is more likely to rack up Finals MVPs. His ability to rise and fire over defenders is a postseason-friendly formula Curry can't physically replicate. But even Durant is partially dependent on Curry. He enjoys fewer double-teams and turns into the NBA's best-ever afterthought for a moment or two at a time. His effective field-goal percentage predictably took a nosedive last season whenever Curry stepped off the court—both during the regular season and playoffs.
The Warriors as a whole encounter similar setbacks without their star floor general. Their net rating plunged by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. No one else's absence impacted them by more than 4.8 points per 100 possessions. To have that influence over a team like Golden State is divine—and the consummate validation for Curry's standing.