NBA Metrics 101: Ranking Every Starting Backcourt for 2018-19 Season
What good is a dominant point guard without a capable counterpart at shooting guard in the same backcourt? On the flip side, how much of the heavy lifting can a studly 2-guard do when his analog serves as a nightly liability?
Those one-man shows can find success, but the NBA's leading backcourts have positive pieces at both spots in the lineup. We're talking about James Harden and Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson or John Wall and Bradley Beal, though you'll have to read on to see how these candidates stack up for the 2018-19 festivities.
We're diving into plenty of numbers for these expected game-openers (their results together from the 2017-18 campaign, for starters), but the order of the countdown is derived through a simple process.
First, we're finding each backcourt member's score in NBA Math's #CrystalBasketball project, which ranks every single player in the Association on a 1-12 scale seen here. (Note: Not all scores have been made public at the time of publication.) Then, we're adding them together to find the number you can see displayed parenthetically next to each grouping of players.
Some teams earn lofty marks because of one standout. Others have average contributors at both the 1 and 2.
But only the elite at each slot have a shot at backcourt supremacy.
30-26: Magic, Knicks, Cavaliers, Hawks, Pistons
30. Orlando Magic: D.J. Augustin and Jonathon Simmons (7.03)
2017-18 results together: minus-8.6 net rating in 846 minutes
Perhaps the Orlando Magic might want to invest in an actual starting point guard at some point in the immediate future. Eschewing an addition during both the 2018 NBA draft and the ensuing offseason period, they made zero upgrades at the key position and now figure to run out D.J. Augustin for yet another term.
Augustin's three-point shooting (41.9 percent on 3.6 attempts per game) made him a decent fit alongside the defense-first Jonathon Simmons, but his dearth of table-setting skills held back the Orlando offense and hindered the developments of many young pieces. And as he prepares for his age-31 season, even stagnation would be a big ask.
29. New York Knicks: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. (8.07)
2017-18 results together: minus-2.9 net rating in 382 minutes
Though the New York Knicks emerged victoriously in just three of Trey Burke's nine starts at the end of the 2017-18 calendar, the 25-year-old thrived as an individual. He averaged 18.7 points, 2.6 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game while shooting 48.3 percent from the field and 77.3 percent at the stripe.
But that doesn't feel even remotely sustainable for a draft bust who's never shown anything more than brief flashes of NBA ability, especially because New York saw its net rating drop 6.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Fortunately, Burke isn't the long-term answer. Frank Ntilikina should usurp him at some point in 2018-19, and he may even take over the starting gig with a particularly strong preseason that shows off growing offensive acumen alongside his preternatural defensive instincts. That would immediately improve New York's backcourt standing, even if its score in this analysis would only elevate to 8.41.
After all, Tim Hardaway Jr., despite the enormity of his contract ($54.5 million remaining, including his player option for 2020-21), still limits the overall ceiling with his inefficient volume scoring and defensive porosity.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers: George Hill and Rodney Hood (8.55)
2017-18 results together: 0.4 net rating in 296 minutes
George Hill endured a miserable regular season for the Sacramento Kings before eventually finding some life with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Rodney Hood fell apart during the Cavaliers' playoff run, to the point that he was unplayable in big moments. So really, we don't know what to expect from a pair of volatile veterans entering a new situation without LeBron James to bail them out in tough times.
If anything, that 0.4 net rating is a bit misleading because it combines regular-season adeptness with postseason futility. The Cavs outscored opponents by 5.9 points per 100 possessions with these two logging minutes during the regular season, though the number fell to a goose egg without James on the floor. The playoffs sparked a minus-35.2 net rating in 40 relevant minutes (minus-31 in 17 minutes sans James).
Fortunately, this is just a placeholder lineup until incoming rookie Collin Sexton is ready to take the reins.
27. Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young and Kent Bazemore (8.7)
2017-18 results together: N/A
Jeremy Lin could earn the initial starting nod for the Atlanta Hawks, which would push their score to 8.85 and keep them in the No. 27 rung on the backcourt ladder.
But Trae Young is significantly more likely to win the job than Sexton is for the Cavaliers because of the more advanced nature of his skill set, Lin's need to bounce back from an injury-ruined season and the Hawks' status as unquestioned rebuilders, whereas the Cavs are presumably competing for a playoff spot under the supervision of incumbent All-Star Kevin Love.
Alongside Kent Bazemore, who's now an underrated and properly paid presence after adjoining his defensive prowess with confidence as a spot-up marksman, Young will surely endure his fair share of struggles. Space won't be as easy to come as it was in college at Oklahoma, and we've already seen him go through cold stretches during summer league. Defense is also going to be...problematic.
But what do the Hawks have to lose? Other than more games, of course.
26. Detroit Pistons: Reggie Jackson and Reggie Bullock (9.14)
2017-18 results together: 0.9 net rating in 359 minutes
Perhaps Reggie Jackson can rekindle some of his former magic, while defenses pay even more attention to the frontcourt with Blake Griffin aboard for an entire season. Reggie Bullock's sharpshooting habits surely won't hurt after the unheralded 2-guard knocked down 44.5 percent of his triples while taking 4.5 per game in 2017-18—numbers only, well, zero qualified players could match.
But even if these two men wind up functioning as the Detroit Pistons' third- and fourth-best players, they have limited ceilings that prevent them from rising too much higher in the rankings. Bullock is never going to become a shot-creating wizard or thrive on the defensive end, and a 28-year-old Jackson who still relies on driving into the teeth of the defense isn't likely to remain fully healthy and make an All-Star surge, even in the weaker Eastern Conference.
The two Reggies have a loftier floor than the ones from other backcourts populating this portion of the rankings, but the good news doesn't extend much further.
25-21: Kings, Bulls, Nets, Suns, Clippers
25. Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic (9.15)
2017-18 results together: minus-10.8 net rating in 1,143 minutes
De'Aaron Fox should grow from his rookie experience, which featured some of the least valuable performances in the Association. He finished with a minus-4.27 in ESPN.com's real plus-minus, ahead of only Jerryd Bayless (minus-4.42), Jameer Nelson (minus-5.27) and Emmanuel Mudiay (minus-6.09) among the 98 players classified as point guards. FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO model shows he was worth—this is not a typo—minus-$19.7 million to Sacramento in 2017-18.
At least he's projected to grow in 2018-19? That same model shows he'll be worth minus-$6 million during the coming season before elevating to $1.1 million in 2019-20. Yes, that's finally a positive figure.
Though Bogdan Bogdanovic is an overlooked scoring option with surprising value for the Kings, Fox still needs plenty of work after a miserable defensive season in which he slashed 41.2/30.7/72.3. We're baking in substantial improvement from the 20-year-old who realistically can only trend up, but that still leaves the Kings looking up at plenty of other backcourts.
24. Chicago Bulls: Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine (9.37)
2017-18 results together: minus-18 net rating in 308 minutes
The good news: Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine seem to complement each other nicely. Whereas the former is a pesky defender whose quick hands force opposing guards into tricky situations, the latter thrives as a scoring force who can use both a threatening jumper and his fearsome athleticism to keep foes off balance.
The bad news: Dunn has to play offense, and LaVine must suit up on defense. Even after substantially improving in his first year away from the Minnesota Timberwolves, the former shot 42.9 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from downtown. Meanwhile, the latter struggled to remain efficient while working his way back from an ACL tear and continued to prove porous on the perimeter (a minus-2.0 defensive box plus/minus was the best score of his four-year career).
Dunn and LaVine each have pedigree and notable strengths. But their games are too incomplete to threaten the top half of this countdown.
23. Brooklyn Nets: D'Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe (9.53)
2017-18 results together: minus-1.7 net rating in 713 minutes
The Brooklyn Nets could go in three different directions with their starting backcourt, but none were particularly successful during the 2017-18 season:
- D'Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe (9.53): minus-1.7 net rating in 713 minutes
- D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie (10.11): minus-9.3 net rating in 353 minutes
- Spencer Dinwiddie and Allen Crabbe (9.5): minus-1.5 net rating in 1,420 minutes
Crabbe is key, and not just because the dual-point guard lineup would have trouble stopping nosebleeds, much less NBA attacks. The spacing he provides is ultra-valuable, especially because it comes in an off-ball setting that doesn't take touches away from the attacking 1-guards who need to control the rock.
But Russell has to be the other choice because of his upside. Though the No. 2 pick of the 2015 NBA draft has floundered during his three-year NBA career, this coming season will be the first time he's enjoyed the luxury of both health and coaching continuity. If his shooting and decision-making both develop, he could make this score look awfully conservative in a few months.
22. Phoenix Suns: Elie Okobo and Devin Booker (9.71)
2017-18 results together: N/A
The Phoenix Suns have a massive conundrum at point guard, which allows uncertainty to fester at both positions after Devin Booker broke his hand and put the start of his 2018-19 campaign in jeopardy. But whereas we know what a healthy Booker will bring to the proverbial table—extreme offensive adroitness that often comes with defensive ineptitude—we have no clue what to expect from the options at the 1.
Will the Suns roll with Elie Okobo after spending the No. 31 pick on him? Will they hand the starting job to De'Anthony Melton after acquiring him from the Houston Rockets in August? Could Shaquille Harrison or Isaiah Canaan get the nod? Hell, the Suns may even throw Booker out as a point guard and employ an oversized lineup with Troy Daniels joining him in the starting five.
None of the options are particularly appealing. Booker may grade out as the best player in the bottom half of the backcourt rankings (with room to spare), but no matter he's paired with, he'll be joined by the man earning the worst marks.
21. Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley (10.01)
2017-18 results together: N/A
Between Patrick Beverley's season-ending injury and Avery Bradley's midseason arrival in the trade that sent Blake Griffin to Detroit, we have yet to see these two defense-first entities operate in harmony. But the prospect remains exciting, and that's doubly true if Bradley can rekindle his healthy form from the Boston Celtics era while Beverley continues thriving as a spot-up option from outside the rainbow.
Lest we forget, they combined to shoot 38.6 percent on 9.3 triples per game in 2016-17.
But downside does exist because neither excels as a table-setter. The Clippers, who may not be ready to call upon rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Jerome Robinso in a crowded backcourt that also contains Lou Williams, Tyrone Wallace, Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans, can find that skill in Milos Teodosic. However, neither of the expected starters thrives as a natural point guard.
20-16: Mavericks, Bucks, Timberwolves, Lakers, Heat
T19. Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic (10.44)
2017-18 results together: N/A
Allow us to bring back what ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton penned about the youngest Euroleague MVP in history before the Dallas Mavericks selected him in the 2018 NBA draft:
"Doncic is naturally No. 1, and his 5.8 projected wins above replacement player (WARP)—what we'd expect him to average over his first five seasons, discounting more distant ones to reward immediate returns—are in fact the most for any of the 800-plus players I've projected dating back to 2003. Doncic tops Anthony Davis (5.5) for that honor, though it's worth noting that I don't have a projection for LeBron James out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School or Dwight Howard the following year."
We aren't remotely scared to predict success from Luka Doncic during his rookie season. In fact, the expected improvement from Dennis Smith Jr., who struggled on both ends of the floor while thrown into the fire as a first-year point guard, is a much shakier proposition.
This will be among the NBA's youngest backcourt tandems. But if Smith remembers how to shoot and learns from last year's growing pains, it could also immediately prove to be among the most promising.
T19. Milwaukee Bucks: Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon (10.44)
2017-18 results together: minus-2.5 net rating in 727 minutes
The Milwaukee Bucks could very well start Tony Snell alongside Eric Bledsoe, which would drop their score to 9.67 and push them behind the Mavericks, Clippers and Suns. That tandem earned a 2.8 net rating in 1,330 shared minutes last season. The Bucks could also start Khris Middleton at the 2 in an oversized lineup, although that would create weaknesses at bigger spots even while bumping the Bucks to No. 13 in these rankings.
But if the Bucks want to lessen some of Bledsoe's offensive responsibilities, freeing him up to improve on defense while giving Giannis Antetokounmpo even more work as the lead option, Brogdon remains the top choice. The former Rookie of the Year is now coming off a season in which he finished in the 70th percentile for points per spot-up possession, and he registered in the 56th percentile as a cutter, proving he's at least above-average in those off-ball scenarios.
An aging Bledsoe and a complementary piece such as Brogdon don't necessarily offer immense upside, but they make Brewtown another squad with a respectable floor.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves: Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins (10.77)
2017-18 results together: 0.9 net rating in 2,242 minutes
Let's turn back to FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO forecast, looking both at the not-too-distant past and expected future for the enigmatic swingman that is Andrew Wiggins:
- 2015-16: 0.5 WARP (worth $3.5 million)
- 2016-17: minus-0.3 WARP (minus-$0.9 million)
- 2017-18: minus-0.4 WARP (minus-$1.0 million)
- 2018-19: 1.4 WARP ($12.1 million)
- 2019-20: 2.0 WARP ($17.1 million)
However, Wiggins has done nothing to warrant any confidence in a quantum leap that makes him a legitimately valuable piece for the Minnesota Timberwolves. That won't change until he demonstrates some degree of defensive improvement or willingness to contribute in non-scoring facets on offense.
But at least the perpetually underrated Jeff Teague, who's ready to build upon his first Minnesota season, will help to drag this tandem toward the top half of the league.
17. Los Angeles Lakers: Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (10.89)
2017-18 results together: 0.1 net rating in 1,347 minutes
Coming off an injury-plagued rookie season in which he averaged only 10.2 points while slashing 36.0/30.5/45.1, Lonzo Ball is the ultimate litmus test for how you value NBA players.
If you think he's relegated to bust status because of his scoring woes, you aren't digging deep enough. If you recognized his defensive excellence (driven by quick hands and exceptional positioning, even if he was susceptible to some pick-and-roll action) and value adds as a distributor, you're on the money. After all, he finished No. 21 among point guards in RPM (1.12), directly behind John Wall.
That should be Ball's baseline alongside Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who continues to develop as a three-and-D contributor lurking just outside the spotlight. Even if Ball remains an offensive liability, he'll be a clear positive overall.
And if he develops a capable jumper...
16. Miami Heat: Goran Dragic and Wayne Ellington (10.96)
2017-18 results together: 1.6 net rating in 802 minutes
Is it disrespectful to push a backcourt tandem boasting a reigning All-Star into the bottom half? The answer would usually be yes. But Goran Dragic was an All-Star more because the Miami Heat needed a representative and he deserved legacy inclusion than because of his individual merits in 2017-18—a season in which Miami performed better without him on the floor as he struggled on defense and couldn't remain quite as efficient as a scorer.
That isn't to say Dragic is useless. Far from it. He remains a devastating scoring option who can finish around the hoop with aplomb, and he's the closest thing the Heat have to a go-to bucket-getter who can maintain some semblance of efficiency (unlike Dion Waiters).
Pair him with Wayne Ellington, who performed admirably as an off-ball weapon while in the best shape of his career throughout 2017-18, and you have a duo that can keep up with most of the NBA's non-elite backcourts on any given night.
15-11: Grizzlies, Pelicans, Hornets, Nuggets, Raptors
15. Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley and Dillon Brooks (11.07)
2017-18 results together: 5.5 net rating in 186 minutes
Don't lend much credence to that 5.5 net rating you can see above, as Mike Conley barely played before a heel injury sidelined him for the season. While he didn't have a chance to suit up alongside Dillon Brooks in 2016-17—Brooks was still a member of the Oregon Ducks at the time—it's worth noting that the Memphis Grizzlies outscored their foes by 3.1 points per 100 possessions with Conley on the floor that year.
But what should we expect moving forward?
Brooks, a 2017 second-round pick likely moved to the 2 out of positional necessity, is better than the metrics might indicate because of his versatility and willingness to do the little things that rarely show up in box scores. He should only get better as he gains more comfort in the Association. And if that happens while Conley staves off Father Time to play at his 2016-17 level, the Grizzlies could sneakily possess one of the NBA's better backcourts.
14. New Orleans Pelicans: Elfrid Payton and Jrue Holiday (11.6)
2017-18 results together:: N/A
In theory, Elfrid Payton and Jrue Holiday should work together marvelously.
Holiday blossomed into a legitimate complementary star alongside Anthony Davis after the New Orleans Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins for the year, and he validated that surge with pristine postseason play. Not only is he a defensive stalwart in on-ball situations, but he's capable of serving as a go-to scorer, off-ball threat or distributing floor general on any given possession.
Payton, meanwhile, should be a convincing simulacrum of Rajon Rondo, capable of filling the same pass-first role while focusing on defense. Rondo and Holiday earned a 2.5 net rating while operating in tandem last season, and merely replicating that—by no means a tough ask for a 24-year-old finally operating in a comfortable system—would be great news by the bayou.
13. Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb (12.03)
2017-18 results together: 8.2 net rating in 1,080 minutes
Don't be surprised by the Charlotte Hornets thriving with Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb on the floor. The point guard means everything to this franchise, which excels when he's playing and struggles to keep up with lottery-dwelling outfits when he's not. Then again, it's also worth noting the Hornets outscored their opponents by only 0.4 points per 100 possessions with Walker on and Lamb off, so this isn't an example of one contributor carrying too much of the burden.
Though Walker is still Charlotte's best player, Lamb proved to be no slouch in 2017-18. Not only did he average 12.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists while showing a slight improvement on defense, but he did so while shooting 45.7 percent from the field, 37.0 percent from three-point territory and 86.1 percent at the stripe.
So long as the rest of the Hornets can make up for the matador nature these two can display in the pick-and-roll game, they'll light up scoreboards and make Charlotte better for it.
12. Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray and Gary Harris (13.19)
2017-18 results together: 5.7 net rating in 1,720 minutes
Thanks to the presence of should-be All-Star Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets have the luxury of throwing out an unorthodox pairing of backcourt starters. Neither Jamal Murray nor Gary Harris excels as a primary facilitator, but they each fill their roles well alongside a big man capable of running the show and dropping dimes that would make some point guards drool with envy.
Harris is an ultimate-three-and-D wing who thrives both as a cutter (84th percentile) and a spot-up marksman (81st percentile) while consistently accepting tough defensive assignments. Murray is a shot-creating standout who can score both off the bounce and in those same off-ball scenarios. Most importantly, both have displayed remarkable levels of chemistry with Jokic.
If Murray improves on defense or either player grows as a distributor, this young duo could look like a laughable omission from the top 10 in a few months.
11. Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry and Danny Green (13.4)
2017-18 results together: N/A
Forget about Kyle Lowry's all-around offensive prowess. Free your mind of Danny Green's shooting stroke, which should allow him to space the floor with the Toronto Raptors just as he did for so many years with the San Antonio Spurs. On defense alone, especially with Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and others supporting them, these two should make for a ferocious defensive duo capable of hounding any set of opposing guards.
Now, they get to play together while Lowry is freed from the defensive anchor (note: not the good kind) that is DeMar DeRozan.
10. San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan (13.52)
2017-18 results together: N/A
The Toronto Raptors were able to cover for DeMar DeRozan's defensive warts, and the San Antonio Spurs should be no different. Not only do they have a system in place that hides individual liabilities, but he'll again be joined by a strong defensive option at the 1.
Dejounte Murray is one of the NBA's few floor generals who's better on defense than Kyle Lowry. Sure, he isn't close to matching Lowry's offensive work—he won't be in the same ballpark until he learns to shoot better than 26.5 percent from downtown—but his length and quickness make him a havoc-wreaking machine capable of stifling ball-handlers and shutting down passing lanes.
Last year, 218 different players suited up in at least 50 contests and played 20-plus minutes per game. Only 15 racked up more deflections per 36 minutes than Murray. No one collected more loose balls over the same average stretch. Though 71 men contested more shots per 36 minutes, only two players did so while spending the majority of their minutes in the backcourt (Danny Green and Josh Hart). Best of all, only the following contributors were in at least the 65th percentile in each of the three categories:
- Al-Farouq Aminu
- Anthony Davis
- Dejounte Murray
- Dwight Powell
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Greg Monroe
- Larry Nance Jr.
- Pascal Siakam
- Rudy Gay
- Steven Adams
- Thaddeus Young
Notice any other point guards?
You know what DeRozan is on offense. It's time to recognize his new counterpart for his work on the other side.
9. Utah Jazz: Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell (13.6)
2017-18 results together: 7.9 net rating in 1,711 minutes
This isn't just about Donovan Mitchell.
The rising sophomore should make an All-Star push in the Western Conference if he continues to build upon the sterling efforts of his rookie campaign. He already spent his first year improving at the rim and figuring out how to take better looks as a No. 1 option, and he should grow defensively in 2018-19 now that he's adapted to filling such a hefty offensive role. Mitchell might not be ready to challenge Rudy Gobert as the Utah Jazz's best player, but he's closer than some might realize.
But again, this isn't only about him. Cue Michael Shapiro of Sports Illustrated:
"[Ricky] Rubio has found a near-perfect basketball situation after years of floundering in Minnesota. [Head coach Quin] Snyder's motion mania springs Rubio off a multitude of looks, from pin-downs on the wing to HORNS sets with Gobert and either Mitchell or Joe Ingles as dual screeners. As Rob Mahoney noted in SI's Top 100 list, Snyder has fostered a perfect environment for Rubio, allowing his creativity to flourish while manufacturing quality shot attempts for the former non-shooter. The mind meld between Snyder and Rubio was a key reason behind Utah's nine-spot jump in points per game from 2016–17 to last season."
If Rubio can replicate his three-point exploits from his first Salt Lake City season—and there's good reason to believe he can—the Jazz won't just win through defense. They'll boast a blend of two-way abilities in the backcourt that bleeds into the rest of the lineup.
Best of all, regression would be fine. Defenders will at least enter the season having to respect Rubio in off-ball scenarios—something that never held true in the past.
8. Indiana Pacers: Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo
2017-18 results together: 6.3 net rating in 1,673 minutes
Don't sleep on the offensive potency of the Darren Collison-Victor Oladipo combination.
Sure, it's impressive that they posted a 6.3 net rating while spending so much time on the floor together. But the manner in which they toppled foes was perhaps even more noteworthy, as they overcame some defensive cracks by converting buckets with both volume and efficiency. The Indiana Pacers scored a whopping 112.6 points per 100 possessions with the two starting guards, and it isn't hard to see why.
Oladipo is the offensive star capable of shouldering immense burdens despite increased attention from opponents. He's nearly unstoppable when he picks up a head of steam and charges toward the basket, especially because foes have no choice but to respect his pull-up game. He might not have found nylon at an especially high clip, but shooting 40.1 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from downtown was respectable enough to earn second thoughts before defenders back-pedaled furiously toward the rim.
Collison, meanwhile, doesn't draw nearly as much attention. Instead, he excels at avoiding mistakes and cooly racking up offensive contributions that fly well below the radar.
Not only did Collison shoot a league-high 46.8 percent from three-point range last season, but he did so while refusing to turn over the rock and compiling stately assist figures. In fact, he's now one of only eight qualified players in league history to average 10 or more points, shoot better than 40 percent from deep, dish out at least five dimes per contest and record a turnover percentage below 12.
The others? Larry Bird, Mike Conley, Michael Finley, Jeff Hornacek, Kyrie Irving, Fat Lever and Jason Terry.
7. Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons and JJ Redick (14.78)
2017-18 results together: 7.8 net rating in 1,674 minutes
A new tier began with the Utah Jazz: the duos who graded out well with our methodology while also already proving they could thrive alongside one another. It continues with the Philadelphia 76ers, who submitted sparkling numbers throughout the nearly 1,700 minutes Ben Simmons and JJ Redick logged together.
But let's put this in perspective—and note that the numbers will be slightly different because we're only including regular-season production, whereas the 7.8 net rating listed above accounts for the postseason as well.
Redick and Simmons were one of only 111 tandems that posted at least 1,400 minutes in the season's first 82 games. Just two were able to top their 10.7 net rating—Simmons/Robert Covington (11.7) and Covington/Dario Saric (12.5).
Yes, you're reading that correctly. Simmons' passing excellence and defensive chops coupled with Redick's sharpshooting and underrated distributing acumen was already that good. Though the former was a rookie, he made it virtually impossible to best him on either end of the floor for a Philadelphia squad that morphed into a full-fledged juggernaut during the second half of the season.
Sure, the two relatively struggled during the Sixers' playoff run, only outscoring their foes by 0.2 points per 100 possessions over the course of 255 joint minutes. But that just means there's room for improvement; they'll be even better if Simmons can display some semblance of a working jumper during his sophomore go-round.
Don't be surprised when the Philadelphia representatives surge even higher in a future iteration of these rankings.
6. Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown (15.72)
2017-18 results together: 7.4 net rating in 1,348 minutes
Blessed with an eye-popping collection of depth, the Boston Celtics could veer away from this expected starting backcourt in a number of different fashions. Marcus Smart could begin games on the floor, pushing Jaylen Brown to the bench as a super-sub capable of running away with Sixth Man of the Year. Gordon Hayward could line up at the 2 in an oversized quintet. Terry Rozier may even work his way into the picture at some point.
But particularly after such a stellar postseason, Brown should have this job with a lengthy leash.
It also doesn't hurt that he and Kyrie Irving complement each other nicely. Irving has the NBA's flashiest handles and often functions as a walking bucket-getter, capable of breaking down any defender with his yo-yo dribbling before converting even the toughest of buckets. Brown, meanwhile, is a defensive menace with a growing offensive game, and he's plenty comfortable biding his time in spot-up situations as he awaits feeds from his many capable teammates.
And yet, it isn't necessarily what they can do together that makes this group special, so much as what they can do in any situation.
Take Brown out of the picture, and Irving is just fine alongside any other wing. He's a gifted one-on-one creator who doesn't need sturdy off-ball options around him. Remove Irving from the floor, and Brown can assume more scoring responsibilities, as he proved throughout Boston's deep playoff run.
Malleability is key for a team with this much depth, and this backcourt has it in spades.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson (15.97)
2017-18 results together: 10.8 net rating in 957 minutes
Are we cheating? Maybe a bit.
Andre Roberson has all but admitted he isn't going to be at 100 percent until the 2018-19 season is well underway, as OKCFox.com's Joe Buettner shared:
"My No. 1 goal right now is to come back 100 percent healthy and feeling comfortable like myself in the past with my movements and my overall feel for the game.
"Sitting out a whole year away from a high level of basketball is going to be tough in terms of coming back. I'm not really putting a particular time on it, but I want to come back to myself somewhere in like December. So, it'd be great if it happened before. Christmas, that'd be great. But like I said, not putting a time on it. Just taking it a day at a time."
As such, the Oklahoma City Thunder could begin the season with Dennis Schroder, Alex Abrines or Terrance Ferguson suiting up alongside Russell Westbrook in the starting five. Based on our methodology, that would drop them to Nos. 7, 12 and 12, respectively, in the backcourt rankings.
But we're sticking with the listed duo because the perennial MVP candidate and perpetually underrated swingman are so potent together. Roberson, despite offensive deficiencies that sometimes allow defenders to play five-on-four basketball, is such a gifted wing defender that he can negate some of Westbrook's gambling on that end. He brings out the best in his point guard, just as Westbrook's aggression often opens up easier cutting opportunities for him.
Anyone would look good alongside Westbrook, no matter how prominent his flaws have become under the intense scrutiny that's followed his time since he won the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Roberson just looks especially good.
4. Washington Wizards: John Wall and Bradley Beal (16.15)
2017-18 results together: 3.6 net rating in 1,471 minutes
John Wall and Bradley Beal weren't quite as successful last season as some of the backcourts surrounding them in these rankings, but we have reason to believe they'll rise back to prominence during the 2018-19 campaign.
First, health and natural development should treat them nicely. Wall missed 41 games in 2017-18, which forced his backcourt counterpart into a bit of an uncomfortable situation as he tried to create too much of his own offense alongside replacement point guard Tomas Satoransky. The team survived Wall's absence, but it made it a bit tougher for the two typical starters to coexist—an easy fix after an offseason together and predicted growth from a 25-year-old 2-guard.
Second, Washington's chemistry should be better moving forward.
The dysfunction was readily apparent on every broadcast last year, but Marcin Gortat is no longer laboring in the nation's capital. Sure, Dwight Howard isn't exactly a bastion of locker room harmony, and Beal and Wall have their own history as well. But that change alone signals a desire to improve the culture that's held back Washington in prior seasons, and it should push Beal and Wall to accept each other's strengths and weaknesses with no hesitation or love lost.
At their best, the two can form an unstoppable offensive tandem, coupling Wall's blazing speed and precision passing with Beal's scoring excellence in half-court scenarios. If everything finally clicks, we could be talking about another contender for home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
3. Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum (16.71)
2017-18 results together: 3.5 net rating in 2,031 minutes
The questions surrounding this Rip City twosome never involve their work on offense. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum deserve all the credit in the world for their abilities there.
They're both potent scorers who can thrive in every situation imaginable, capable of calling their own numbers or setting up their teammates. Not only are they comfortable attacking the basket, but they're effective pull-up artists—Lillard more from beyond the arc with his quick stroke, and McCollum from inside of it with his smooth, high-release jumper.
But defense? That's where they can get into some trouble.
Both guards seemed to improve defensively during the 2017-18 campaign, particularly in the pick-and-roll environment so omnipresent in today's league. That growth helped quell questions about the long-term feasibility of this partnership, but it didn't erase them entirely. After all, the Portland Trail Blazers still ceded 107.7 points per 100 possessions when the two men logged minutes together in the regular season, and that number soared to 125.2 during the team's brief postseason venture—a disastrous sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans.
Ultimately, that has to limit the upside in Portland.
But on the flip side, we at least know what to expect—at a minimum—from Lillard and McCollum. They play well together, and they've proved capable of operating in harmony for lengthy portions of one season after another. There's no jealousy holding either member back, but instead a clear desire to punish the opposition for even the tiniest lapses.
2. Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (19.47)
2017-18 results together: 13.2 net rating in 1,573 minutes
What more can we say about the greatest shooting pairing ever witnessed in NBA history?
Klay Thompson isn't quite on the same level as the players comprising the starting backcourt for our No. 1 finisher, thanks to his status as an elite complementary figure rather than a standalone superstar (see: dribbling limitations). But he's still a devastating two-way option who can light up scoreboards without commandeering possessions while shutting down opposing wings on the other end.
He's still the obvious backcourt Robin to Stephen Curry's backcourt Batman—a clarification made necessary by Kevin Durant's presence in the Bay Area.
Curry might not have received quite as much hype for his 2017-18 efforts, but the greatest marksman in league history still averaged a scorching 26.4 points, 6.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds while playing solid positional defense and slashing 49.5/42.3/92.1. Somewhat quietly, he managed to finish tied for 10th in the MVP voting—by no means a shabby spot for someone who ceded so much spotlight to Durant while suiting up only 51 times for a historically loaded squad.
At this point, we know what we're getting from Curry and Thompson.
Their 13.2 net rating in 1,573 minutes (regular season and postseason combined) is laudable. It's also not even par for the course after 2016-17 (19 net rating in 2,210 minutes), 2015-16 (15.9 net rating in 2,562 minutes) and 2014-15 (16 net rating in 2,635 minutes).
If history tells us anything, it's that we should expect positive regression from the Splash Brothers in 2018-19.
1. Houston Rockets: Chris Paul and James Harden (20.11)
2017-18 results together: 12.4 net rating in 1,326 minutes
How special was the Chris Paul-James Harden tandem during their first season together for the Houston Rockets?
Well, consider the top-two leaguewide finishers in RPM as far back as the metric tracks:
- 2013-14: LeBron James (9.08) and Chris Paul (7.98)
- 2014-15: Stephen Curry (9.34) and LeBron James (8.78)
- 2015-16: LeBron James (9.79) and Draymond Green (8.97)
- 2016-17: LeBron James (8.42) and Chris Paul (7.92)
- 2017-18: Chris Paul (6.99) and James Harden (6.71)
Teammates aren't supposed to occupy the top two rungs simultaneously. In fact, Draymond Green and Stephen Curry are the only running mates who have claimed top-five spots during the same season (both in 2015-16 and 2016-17), but neither led the league.
Paul and Harden did so while populating the same backcourt, effectively ending any questions onlookers had about their ability to coexist and share one ball. The former helps make up for the latter's defensive shortcomings, and their joint ability to control offensive flow keeps defenders operating in a persistent state of fear, unable to stop a multifaceted Houston attack that can overwhelm an opponent in many different manners.
And yet, we haven't even touched on the most telling stat of all.
During the regular season, the Rockets were an astounding 44-5 with both Harden and Paul in the lineup. Prorate that to a full 82-game calendar, and you're staring at a 74-8 record during a campaign in which they were supposed to be testing out the waters and building a stable on-court relationship.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.