B/R NBA Player Rankings: Top 15 Point Guards for 2019-20

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 14, 2019

B/R NBA Player Rankings: Top 15 Point Guards for 2019-20

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    Tsk, tsk to anyone who thought they'd have to begin the NBA regular season without taking in some good ol' Bleacher Report player rankings. As if we'd leave you hanging like that.

    This annual pledge to criminally underrate and unfairly exclude your favorite player(s) while carrying out predetermined agendas against your team(s) of choice will rise to a top-100 crescendo. For now, we begin with the Association's best point guards. 

    Tethering players to specific positions is only getting harder as the league continues embracing roles without boundaries. Positions are more interpretative than objective. Pay more attention to a player's ranking relative to the field up for discussion. That will say more about his value than whether he'll log most of his time at a given spot.

    Possession data from Cleaning the Glass will be used to determine which umbrella a player falls under, but it isn't an end-all. Positions can be changed from last season if presented with enough evidence—mainly depth-chart setups.

    Fair warning: LeBron James is not here, so don't look for him. The Los Angeles Lakers are noncommittal, at best, about playing him as the official point guard and have other options. This isn't a Ben Simmons-Philadelphia 76ers situation. James' move, which would be more of a technicality than functional shift, must take effect before it becomes the accepted normal. Also: Jrue Holiday will be slotted with the shooting guards.

    All the usual criteria applies thereafter. Point guards are evaluated as if they're being acquired for the entire 2019-20 season. That includes the playoffs. This does not mean players have to be on postseason contenders; the degree to which they can positively impact winning at the highest level is all we care about.

    Of note: Preseason did not play a huge role in these rankings. Injuries matter and will factor in accordingly. Players expected to miss the entire season are automatically removed from consideration. In this case, that translates to no John Wall. Rookies are similarly excluded. A handful are bound to crack the overall top 100 by season's end, but passing judgment on players without regular-season reps under their belt is a mostly blind exercise.

15-11: Williams, Bledsoe, Brogdon, Young, Murray

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    15. Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers

    Lou Williams is best suited when his volume goes ungoverned. He has parlayed the league's ninth-highest usage mark over the past two seasons  (minimum five appearances) into consecutive career years. 

    During that time, he owns the fourth-best free-throw-attempt rate among guards to tally at least 2,000 total minutes and has established himself as a viable pick-and-roll facilitator. His combined averages of 21.3 points, 5.3 assists and 56.5 true shooting are matched by only nine other players, and they're all stars: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin and Devin Booker. Just, wow.

    Circumstances may dictate Williams retreat into a less prominent role behind Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Or maybe not. The Clippers don't have a conventional floor general on the roster. They'll need Williams to make sweet pick-and-roll magic with not only Montrezl Harrell but also the rest of their frontcourt rotation.

    Lowering expectations is still the correct course. Williams turns 33 later this month, and the Clippers are deep in a way that suggests he won't need to close as many games or shoulder anywhere near the same wire-to-wire usage.

          

    14. Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks

    Eric Bledsoe, who may begin the season on the shelf with a rib injury, should be riding the wave of last year's All-Defense campaign. Instead, nearly everyone is left wondering if he'll disappear for a third straight playoff run, and whether his vanishing act might extend to a regular season in which Milwaukee won't have Malcolm Brogdon for reinforcement.

    Abandoning Bledsoe's ship is overkill. He is an asset within the Bucks system. Checking the league's best floor generals takes a toll, but he answers the call to arms (almost) every night. His shooting is so-so at its best, but that's more of a postseason problem. 

    Milwaukee affords Bledsoe plenty of room to scramble inside the arc. Among the 68 players who averaged at least eight drives per game last year, only Antetokounmpo converted a higher percentage of his field-goal attempts. 

    But playoff basketball counts, and Bledsoe's limitations on the perimeter add a layer of predictability to the offense. His defense isn't enough to live with that trade-off when the games matter most. And the Bucks can't do much more to make his life easier. They already minimize the time he logs without Antetokounmpo and Middleton, an approach that could be in jeopardy without Brogdon.

            

    13. Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers

    Malcolm Brogdon is a fit for all 30 teams. He has three-position range on defense, and his offense is not contingent upon shot volume or ball-handling. He exists to blend into the bigger picture. 

    Do not confuse this with functional apathy. Brogdon has a meaner streak. He finishes at the rim and in transition more than it actually seems, and he can co-manage an offense. Indiana will look to extract even more from him. It has no choice. He is the best option to direct the offense until Victor Oladipo returns—or unless Aaron Holiday is preparing for a breakout. 

    Playing with Domantas Sabonis will help, but Brogdon has yet to leverage an off-the-dribble jumper and hasn't needed to steer an offense on his own. Milwaukee lost the minutes he played without Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe and Khris Middleton last season. The sample wasn't huge (446 possessions), but Brogdon won't even have a Bledsoe-caliber shot-creator next to him in Indiana without Oladipo. This year will be a referendum on whether he has more to offer an offense.

             

    12. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

    Trae Young never challenged Luka Doncic's claim to Rookie of the Year. Not really. But his late-season tear served as a more meaningful referendum: clear, conclusive proof of his All-Star arc.

    From Jan. 1 on, a stretch spanning more than half the season, Young averaged 21.9 points and 8.6 assists with a 43.3/35.3/85.4 shooting slash. He was even better after the All-Star break. His three-point efficiency never quite took off, but the Hawks weren't—and still aren't—built for him to be the most accurate scorer. Out of the 423 players who appeared in at least 20 games last year, only four had a greater share of their made triples go unassisted.

    Rookies don't usually carry such an extensive burden. Young proved up to his. The Hawks offense, while not great, was much better with him on the floor. He didn't have a huge problem navigating traffic or making plays around the rim, and his vision off the bounce belied his experience. 

    Young would be set to keep climbing the individual ranks without making noticeable change. Except, well, he spent part of the summer working with Steve Nash. That's deeply terrifying.

              

    11. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

    Jamal Murray's five-year, $169.7 million extension is bound to distort how he's viewed. It doesn't kick in until 2020-21, but max-money commitments to players still on their rookie deals are supposed to be superstar signals. Potential alone doesn't cut it anymore. Murray is now obligated to take that kind of step forward.

    Expecting him to is not an overshot. He has teased All-Star offense before. After a 4-of-19 stinker versus the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 26, he finished the season averaging 18.9 points and 4.8 assists per game while slashing 45.2/41.8/83.9 and hitting 38.9 percent of his pull-up threes. His brand of shot-making can carry an offense, both in crunch time and without a safety net. Denver lost the minutes he played without Nikola Jokic, but not by a hopeless margin. That the offense rated in the 60th percentile of efficiency during those stretches is more informative.

    Consistency is all that stands between Murray and an ascent to stardom. Denver needs him to be its second-best player all the time. Through this lens, his postseason was equal parts encouraging and maddening. He was the player who saved the offense on occasion and who disappeared by his own yielding or at the hands of Derrick White, Rodney Hood or Maurice Harkless. He can't be both. 

    The Nuggets revolve around Jokic, but they're at their best when Murray understands how to play inside that blueprint without shrinking into the backdrop.

10. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    The pull to have Kyle Lowry higher is real. His game is so moldable. The Toronto Raptors aren't as successful incorporating Kawhi Leonard and upping Pascal Siakam's usage last season without Lowry emphasizing deference. Over half of his made baskets came off assists for the first time in his career, and his 8.7 dimes per game were a personal best by a mile.

    Lowry will have to take on more scoring responsibility this year. He has called Siakam the offense's go-to option, but the Raptors just lost a top-five player (Leonard) and their best shooter (Danny Green). Siakam and Marc Gasol can only offset so much. 

    Toronto is once again Lowry's team, even if he isn't its best player. Really, this represents more of a return to the status quo. Catch-all metrics pegged him as the Raptors' MVP during the DeMar DeRozan era. This year's setup is something similar. And though Lowry's off-the-bounce jumper didn't serve him well last season, he can still be a lineup anchor.

    In the 808 possessions he played without Green and Leonard last season, Toronto posted a plus-6.6 net rating. The going will get tougher. The Raptors offense didn't set the world on fire during Lowry's solo minutes, and their spacing is even skimpier now. His shot quality might drop, and he will almost certainly find it harder to power his way toward the rim.

    It may take Lowry a minute to get rolling as he works his way back from left thumb surgery. He might even get traded if the Raptors opt for a midseason reset. (That seems less likely after his one-year extension.) But the impact he has on those around him should remain crystal clear.  

    Strong game managers who more than occasionally wear a primary scorer's hat are rare. Lowry is still that guy.

9. Mike Conley, Utah Jazz

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    Undersized point guards with a not-unsubstantial injury history have no business coming off a career year entering their age-32 season. And yet, here is Mike Conley.

    Memphis began last season in limbo before committing to start over. It was a yearlong state of restless transition that demanded more from Conley, and he delivered. His 21.1 points per game were a career best, his 6.4 assists were his most since 2011-12, and he posted the second-highest true shooting of his career while churning through watermark usage.

    Matching that output with the Utah Jazz won't be necessary. Donovan Mitchell is one of the best shot creators Conley has ever played beside, and the offense is littered with secondary ball-handlers (Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles). The Jazz will still aim to overwhelm by committee.

    Coming in as the finishing touch suits Conley. His natural role is game manager. He will put pressure on defenses to the gain of everyone around him, and his role can be tweaked as needed. He has the touch to fire off standstill jumpers around attacks from Mitchell and Bogdanovic (39.8 percent on spot-up threes last year), and when the Jazz need an extra layer of from-scratch creation, he can play that part too. Through all the turnover and turmoil last season, the 33-win Grizzlies still posted a positive point differential with Conley on the floor. 

    Going from the lifeblood of a team teetering on the brink to a co-star for a deep contender has a way of cutting into production. More modest numbers won't fool anyone, as Conley's impact is too apparent even when he's not scoring a ton. He is a defensive downgrade from Ricky Rubio on most nights, but not by terribly much. Leveraging him at both ends should be a boon for Mitchell's development and, above all, Utah's championship aspirations.

8. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Putting Chris Paul so "low" feels wrong. Sticking him any higher is equally unsettling.

    Actual basketball has little to do with Paul's stock. He is still a cerebral playmaker and low-gamble, high-nuisance defender. If his efficiency turned heads last season, it was for the wrong reasons. He shot under 36 percent from deep for the first time since 2012-13 and below 60 percent at the rim for the first time since he was a sophomore. 

    Still, the context of his role matters. He wasn't coasting on James Harden's coattails. Almost 75 percent of his three-point makes went unassisted, the second-highest mark among 423 players to appear in at least 20 games. The one person in front of him? Harden.

    Select areas of Paul's game feel on the decline. His attacks on bigger, slower defenders in space don't look the same. It is fair to wonder whether he can carry an offense. The Houston Rockets outscored opponents last season by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when he played without Harden, but their offensive rating ranked in the 53rd percentile.

    Paul isn't getting an easier gig with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They are skimpier on spacing and heavier on unproven and wild-card prospects. Can Paul plus a suboptimal supporting cast still amount to an average offense? 

    Beyond that, will he even finish the season in Oklahoma City? Will he play out the entire year even if he does? Or will he miss 20-something games, like he has each of the past three seasons? Will the Thunder shut him down if it becomes clear they're not a playoff team?

    A 34-year-old Chris Paul is still damn good. It's just hard to estimate his availability, opportunity and, yes, the jersey he'll be wearing in February.

7. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

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    Slotting De'Aaron Fox so high reeks of a controversy in the making. It shouldn't. Last year's performance was something more than convincing. It stood entirely on its own. 

    No one else cleared 17 points and seven assists per game while dropping in at least 37 percent of his threes. Fox is just the third player to hit these benchmarks before his third season, period, joining Tim Hardaway and Damon Stoudamire. He was the heartbeat of a frantically fast Sacramento Kings offense, all while defending the opposition's No. 1 option more often than anyone in the league, according to true usage data culled by Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu.

    Skeptics will nitpick and quibble. He didn't shoot that many threes! He needs to reach the rim more often! Who else on the Kings last season was going to defend players of consequence? Did you really put him in front of Chris Paul? You must be a casual.

    Some of the (inevitable) pushback is fair. But critiques of younger players are pliable. They're not finished products. Yes, the next leap is infinitely harder for him to make. He's working off a Most Improved Player-worthy season this time, not a rookie campaign that didn't much resonate on a national scale.

    Fox is young enough to ignore the risk—or at least embrace it. He doesn't turn 22 until December. Better basketball is coming. He needs to increase his three-point volume, but he also just drilled more pull-up triples than Tobias Harris. Getting to the rim more often, and perhaps incorporating a floater, would be nice. He might do both now that the Kings have easy access to five-out lineups. He's going to make an All-Defense team at some point. The tools are all there, even if his first-option volume was artificially inflated by offensives actively trying to go after him.

    Last season was no accident. Players don't marry Fox's blend of speed, control and IQ by chance. His brand of basketball is both the calm and the storm, and Sacramento's offseason additions in no way warp the influence he'll have over the offense. He has a real shot at staking his claim as a top-25 player.

6. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

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    Someone so bound to difficult volume should not be riding Kemba Walker's high. Toiling away with the Charlotte Hornets these past three years should have hurt his stock. He instead parlayed his taxing workload into a near-universal uptick in appreciation.

    That much became clear with his first-ever All-NBA selection last season. Bradley Beal's inclusion on the third team seemed slightly more obvious, perhaps even a smidge more deserving. But Walker's all-everything act is years old. Beal hasn't yet needed to cobble together a solo show for that long. (He's working on it now.)

    Out of the 339 players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game last year, only five saw a higher percentage of their three-point makes go unassisted. Aside from James Harden, no one in the league jacked more contested treys or attempted more triples after taking seven-plus dribbles than Walker. 

    This is bonkers. For the types of looks Walker has been confined to, his efficiency should be so much worse. Shot quality is a luxury he's seldom enjoyed, and he doesn't have the size (6'1") to finish around the rim like many of his All-Star contemporaries. That he has hovered around the league average in true shooting these past three years is a minor miracle.

    Relocating from Charlotte to Boston should only help Walker. If nothing else, it will allow him to tread water under a less taxing burden. He may need a grace period while deferring to Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum. He may also be begging for the opportunity after his time carrying the Hornets.

    Over the past three years, Charlotte's offensive rating placed, on average, in the 78th percentile when Walker was on the court. Without him, it dropped into the 20th percentile. Boston has the secondary ball-handlers to get Walker easier looks. That's never been a headlining part of his game, but he's shooting 40.4 percent on catch-and-fire treys since 2016-17. Finding himself on the Celtics won't be a problem.

5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Left alone, Ben Simmons is one of the NBA's most flawed players. He's also one of the best.

    The biggest drawback to Simmons' game is the very thing that teases a limitless ceiling: the complete absence, to date, of an operable jumper. Maybe an outside shot, or a more frequent floater, becomes a part of his repertoire this season. The Philadelphia 76ers hope it does; they're flirting with even spottier floor balance after adding Al Horford to play beside Joel Embiid.

    Focusing on what Simmons cannot yet do is part of the territory. He is an All-Star and the owner of a five-year max extension worth at least $170 million that could rise as high as $203.6 million if he makes first-team All-NBA. The bar for him defaults to demanding, because it should.

    At the same time, obsessing over the (admittedly gigantic) hole in his bag is a disservice to all he can actually do. Because, well, he's an All-Star and owner of a five-year max extension for a reason.

    Simmons' finite range makes life difficult for the Sixers on occasion, but he's still shooting better than 70 percent at the rim through his first two seasons. And he gets to the hoop almost at will, even though defenses already know where he has to go.

    Philly received relatively little pushback for signing Simmons to a finished product's max despite his limitations. That's not an accident. The only other two players to average at least 16 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game over their rookie and sophomore campaigns are Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.

    Defensive malleability ensures even the less-than-ideal version of Simmons will continue jockeying for top-20 status in the years to come. Among every player with a positive defensive real-plus minus last year, no one guarded a wider variety of positions, according to data from Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu. Simmons has the physical tools to switch at all five spots, and while the Sixers prefer not to have him cover opposing point guards, he's capable of neutralizing smaller shot-creators. Ask D'Angelo Russell.

    Knocking down a few jumpers and upping his free-throw efficiency is not unimportant. The Sixers need him to do both long term if they're going to consistently thrive during Embiid-less minutes. But Simmons' outside shortcomings are not a defining void. Without them, he's a top-10 player and perennial MVP contender. With them, he's still an All-NBA hopeful.

4. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets

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    Projecting player values after they've switched teams is supposed to be tough. Figuring out how Russell Westbrook fits on the Houston Rockets, alongside James Harden, is a special brand of guesswork.

    Partnering this level of ball dominance is beyond atypical. Harden and Westbrook rank first and second, respectively, in usage rate since 2016-17 (minimum five appearances). Neither is accustomed to taking a backseat, but it isn't hard to imagine Harden binging on spot-up jumpers if the situation calls for it.

    Then again, Houston can only tamp down Harden's on-ball work so much. He is among the three best offensive players alive. Reshaping his game doesn't make much sense. Westbrook will need to be the one making more wholesale alterations.

    That figures to be a problem, if not indefinitely, then at least early on. The Rockets cannot count on him to drain standstill jumpers in volume. His shot quality should improve within their four-out setups, but he's put down just 34.2 percent of his wide-open threes since 2016-17. Houston apparently plans to get him moving off the ball and use him as a screener, which should help. We still have to see whether that flies in crunch time...or months into the season.

    Established talent has a way of figuring things out, and the Harden-Westbrook duo was not formed against either's will. Staggering their minutes will minimize the overlap. That all matters.

    Ultra-pessimistic views of Westbrook's outlook might still have some merit. But they presuppose he's on a steep decline independent of his might-be awkward fit with Harden. That takes things too far. Westbrook remains a force of nature with the ball in his hands, and he's finally getting the opportunity to play on a team that can surround him with three to four real outside threats at all times. His superstar label isn't in danger of being stripped.

3. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

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    Kyrie Irving's tumultuous 2018-19 swan song with the Boston Celtics is not evidence enough to significantly drop him down the superstar ladder. He offered an in-depth explanation of what went wrong, and taking too much away from his poor showing during the team's nine-game postseason stay would be high comedy.

    Some will still hold his slog of an exit from Boston against him. That isn't unfair. A team with Irving as its best player is subject to the same limitations met by the Celtics. He doesn't get to the foul line or rim especially often and, equally notable, has never come across as a rah-rah leader. His vision stacks up against conventional floor generals, but his actual table-setting so often seems to come out of obligation rather than instinct. He is not hardwired to surrender volume amid a crowded offensive hierarchy.

    Most of this shouldn't be a problem with the Brooklyn Nets. They won't have as many mouths to feed, even when Kevin Durant returns from his Achilles injury. Caris LeVert is the closest they come to having another star in training, and three primary-ish options is easier to juggle than last year's hodgepodge in Boston. 

    Immediately, it helps that LeVert has already signed an extension (three years, $52.5 million). Boston's supporting cast enjoyed less security. Terry Rozier was in a contract year, Jaylen Brown was a season away from restricted free agency and Gordon Hayward was trying to reestablish himself following a serious injury. Jayson Tatum's premature coronation didn't help matters.

    Which is to say, playing in Brooklyn will be a simpler transition for Irving. Lest we forget, he was on track for a career season before Boston went belly-up. He won't have to sacrifice anything this year. The Nets need him to be a ball-handling sorcerer who hangs 20-plus points on efficient three-point shooting.

    When the time does come for Irving to adapt, he'll be fine. Playing alongside Durant should be easier than adjusting to LeBron James—particularly if KD isn't able to ferry the same on-ball workload post-Achilles injury. Failing that, Irving chose Brooklyn, the first such decision he's made in his career. That affords him a certain trust, both now and over the long haul.

2. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Damian Lillard has hit a point where he's not only the closest rival to Stephen Curry at their respective position but also a mainstay in the overall top-10 discussion. What's more, he hasn't reached this apex via striking expansion. His role is, for the most part, the same as ever. His ascension is owed more to the amplification of everything he does best.

    Few players in the league are as comfortable taking difficult shots. Only James Harden and Kemba Walker attempted more pull-up threes last season, and he ranked fourth in contested makes from beyond the arc, which he drilled at a respectable 34.4 percent clip. (For context, Harden converted 32.4 percent of his contested triples.)

    Crunch-time lore only aids Lillard's placement. The numbers aren't always pretty, but he has the "it" gene. His Game 5 series-winner against the Oklahoma City Thunder last spring was an encapsulation of that charm. The fate of the Portland Trail Blazers just feels safe in his hands. That can't always be quantified, but having a late-game crutch who's forever under control is invaluable.

    So too is Lillard's impact behind the scenes. Portland's acquisition of Hassan Whiteside was nothing less than a cultural flex knowing how he ended his tenure with the Miami Heat. Whether the Blazers are better off with him supplanting the injured Jusuf Nurkic isn't the point. Having the confidence to make this gamble nods to the locker room atmosphere Lillard has helped build.

    The most noticeable change to Lillard's game has come in similarly intangible fashion. Neither his assist nor turnover rate has demonstratively improved, but he's never been a better floor general. His feel for navigating traffic is at an all-time high, and almost everything he does seems less forced.

    It would be unwise to expect a measurable uptick from Lillard this season. Indeed, his offensive burden will be heavier without Nurkic and a backup point guard rotation in greater flux than usual. But he's 29, and again, his game has yet to undergo a serious overhaul.

    Fortunately for he and the Blazers, it doesn't need to.

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Stephen Curry's reign as the NBA's best point guard does not face an immediate or, for that matter, imminent challenger. What that says about his standing among all superstars is less of a consensus.

    Pivotal aspects of his could-be MVP case are already written. Change has shaken the Golden State Warriors' dynasty. Kevin Durant is gone. Andre Iguodala too. Klay Thompson isn't expected to return from his torn ACL before the All-Star break

    Golden State has alternative branches of star power in Draymond Green and D'Angelo Russell, but the latter's trajectory is as divisive as his potential fit. The Warriors need to adjust their offensive style to accommodate his pick-and-roll volume, and they don't have the supporting cast to offset the resulting deficit in the event they can't.

    Curry alone is positioned to save what's no longer considered a postseason lock, let alone championship favorite and benchmark powerhouse. Whether a lone-megastar act will grate on him is up for debate. His inevitable optimization of the Warriors is not. He is the rare cornerstone who can complement any iteration of his team without conceding ownership of its identity. 

    This coming year is not a matter of Curry returning to his 2015-16, unanimous MVP heights. That implies he vacated the mountaintop. That version of him has endured the past three years. It was deployed in lesser, tamer doses, but he bends defenses to his presence as much as ever. 

    Curry is averaging 26.3 points and 6.0 assists per game on 64.3 true shooting since 2016-17. And while the Warriors failed in last year's bid for a three-peat, their postseason push was peppered with encouraging reminders of what he can do when he doesn't have a fellow top-five player on which to lean.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball InsidersRealGM and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.