B/R NBA Player Rankings: Top 15 Shooting Guards for 2019-20
Let us now toast to the NBA's best shooting guards ahead of the 2019-20 season.
If you've yet to check out Bleacher Report's point guard rankings, well, what are you waiting for? Do it now:
All the same ground rules are in effect. The lone difference: We're entering wing-player territory. Hammering out specific positions is only getting more difficult, but exact roles are hardest to parse for 2s, 3s and 4s.
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 a team's depth chart calls for it. Think: Klay Thompson is now a small forward after the arrival of D'Angelo Russell.
Things are especially prickly when tackling the Boston Celtics' rotation. Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum all qualified as small forwards last year. They're being separated now. The expectation is that they'll start together, so they're sorted based on their designations alongside one another last season. Spoiler: Jaylen Brown pans out as the shooting guard.
Similar issues arise when looking at the Los Angeles Clippers. They have Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, two career small forwards. Will they be staggered enough to both retain their 3-man labels? Will either one soak up enough time at the 4 to be treated as a power forward, a la Tatum in Boston? The bet on both fronts is no. George has been defaulted to shooting guard.
Please, please, pretty please don't read too much into any one classification. 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 see most of his time at a given spot.
Nothing changes beyond that. Shooting guards are evaluated as if they're being acquired for the entire 2019-20 season. That includes the playoffs. But players do not have to be on postseason contenders to earn brownie points. The degree to which they can positively affect winning at the highest level is all that matters.
Injuries impact these rankings. Victor Oladipo is going to miss large chunks of the season. He will place much lower than usual. Rookies are also excluded. A handful are bound to crack the overall top 100 by season's end, but passing judgment on players without NBA reps under their belt is a no-win exercise.
15-11: Smart, Brown, Richardson, LeVert, Harris
15. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Smart has a chance to be more than the Boston Celtics' resident defensive bloodhound.
Oh, without question, he's still that. Small-ball will have to be a part of the Celtics' DNA after swapping out Al Horford with Enes Kanter, and Smart's defensive range will be paramount to those combinations standing ground at the less glamorous end. He matched up with bigger wings—Luka Doncic, Paul George, Khris Middleton, etc.— to varying volume last year, and Boston hasn't shied from using him to guard in the post.
Smart's offense has always prevented him from shedding the "specialist" label—or from completely avoiding the "liability" designation. He at least began to overturn the non-shooting knock last year. He buried 36.4 percent of his three-pointers and was even more effective off the catch (38.7 percent).
That doesn't make Smart a proven shooter. He does not wield a jumper off the dribble, and defenses will live with the six to 12 points he steals from beyond the arc if it allows them to wall off the lanes for others. But he'll garner more attention, however minimal, if he keeps swishing threes with league-average touch. That alone diversifies his offensive portfolio.
Boston may even have the bandwidth to explore more of Smart's half-court initiation. Carsen Edwards or Brad Wanamaker will be the only option at backup point guard if Gordon Hayward rejoins the starting lineup. Smart is the safer choice to spell Kemba Walker, even if his turnover rate is much too high relative to his usage.
14. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Ranker's remorse is in full effect following Jaylen Brown's preseason. Even last year, he quietly salvaged what was considered a dispiriting third season. He started slow, battled back issues and earned a demotion to the bench, but he averaged 13.9 points over his final 45 games while banging in 54.5 percent of his twos and 39.4 percent of his threes. After regaining his starting spot, he was one of the Boston Celtics' more valuable shooters during their ill-fated playoff run.
The concern is that Brown, 22, may have peaked—on offense, anyway. He has untapped levels of defense. Team USA rolled him out up a position or two, and the returns, at times, looked pretty good. Boston will be able to scrape by with Kemba Walker-plus-all-wing lineups if Brown and Marcus Smart effectively defend up.
Views of Brown's offense are less hopeful. Someone with his athleticism should get to the rim and, in turn, the charity stripe more often. But Brown has seen the percentage of his attempts inside three feet and his free-throw-attempt rate decline each season.
Limited opportunity is at least partially responsible. Brown's freedom within the offense and playing time suffered from Year 2 to Year 3 as the Celtics tried, and failed, to accommodate him, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum all at once. Steadier volume may culminate in a more balanced game.
"I definitely will have more opportunities this year than I did last year, obviously with the loaded roster that we had last year," Brown said, per Celtics.com's Marc D'Amico. "This year, I think I have some responsibility—I have to be accountable; I have some responsibility to make sure that I come out and perform for my teammates."
Predicting more prominent production from Brown requires a leap of faith. Boston has Hayward, Tatum and Walker, and he hasn't yet ditched the drives to nowhere that directly stunt his value as a playmaker. He may just be more three-and-D specialist than All-Star. That's still a darn good basketball player but pales in comparison to what it seemed he might be following his sophomore boom.
13. Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
Josh Richardson's stock dropped slightly last season amid the Miami Heat's need for more. Out of necessity, they needed him to work off the dribble. Situationally, that can work. But Richardson's pick-and-roll frequency skyrocketed from 2017-18 to 2018-19.
Philly does not need to overextend him. It may want to lean on him more in crunch time, when face-up options are king, but the majority of his damage should come off the catch or on quick-fire possessions. And while he can't replace JJ Redick's pinball motions, he does have the chops to be Joel Embiid's dribble-hand-off outlet.
That the Sixers now have Richardson to pester point guards is patently unfair. He spares Ben Simmons from that wear and tear but can also blanket opponents up to the 3 spot—and sometimes the 4. Finding the right defensive matchup for Tobias Harris will be effortless.
Jimmy Butler's exit will not be painless. Philly will feel it, most notably on offense. But snagging Richardson was huge. The Sixers didn't just land on their feet; they acquired a seamless star complement who can flirt with an All-Defensive selection while hitting 37-plus percent of his threes.
12. Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Heading into mid-November, Caris LeVert was the Brooklyn Net generating the most buzz. Not until a dislocated right ankle derailed the heart of his season did D'Angelo Russell begin his climb.
LeVert regained much of his flair by year's end. He averaged 16.0 points and 4.3 assists while draining 45.2 percent of his threes over Brooklyn's final eight games. Small samples are the enemy of meaningful conclusions, but that momentum leaked into the postseason. He carried the Nets offense in five games against the Sixers, averaging 21.0 points and 3.0 assists with a 49.3/46.2/72.4 shooting slash.
Kevin Durant's recovery from a torn Achilles leaves the door wide open for LeVert's rise into fringe or flat-out stardom to continue.
He will be the No. 2 option on most nights and has shown a flair for making more complicated passing reads and shots. The trick for him is embracing volume. Having a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Spencer Dinwiddie to take on No. 2 duties for spurts is a luxury, but LeVert plays more reserved at times than someone with his first step and improved feel for the game should.
11. Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
Gary Harris did not invite much faith in the first season of his four-year, $84 million extension. Hip and hamstring injuries dogged him almost end-to-end, and his 33.9 percent clip from three was the second-lowest of his career.
Rejoining the starting five after a seven-game absence and brief stint on the bench appeared to do him some good. He shot 40.3 percent from deep over his final 21 appearances. But that efficiency came on modest volume and didn't actually hold. He converted just 16 percent of his treys through Denver's final seven games.
Transitioning into the postseason didn't make him any more predictable. His outside shooting normalized early on, but he went 4-of-22 (18.2 percent) from deep in Games 2 thru 7 against the Portland Trail Blazers. Harris' darts to the basket and subsequent finishes rarely seemed the same.
Betting on redemption is still the call. Better health will serve Harris well, and his 2018-19 campaign was not a complete downer. He assumed the assignments the Nuggets' wing rotation wasn't fit to handle. Their preferred starting five—Harris, Will Barton, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic—doesn't survive on defense without him. His life will get noticeably easier with the arrival of Jerami Grant.
10. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
More than a few players behind Buddy Hield have a higher ceiling. This is not a birthday joke. Looking at off-guards alone, Gary Harris, Caris LeVert, Josh Richardson, Jaylen Brown and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, among others, all have arguments to rank ahead of him.
What gives, exactly? Hield's defining skill: shooting. His touch from long range is one of the league's most sought commodities, and he has been among the top snipers for longer than most realize—like, ya know, since he entered the NBA.
This marriage of volume and efficiency cannot be oversold. Nor is it hyperbole to dub Hield the NBA's third-best shooter overall, ceding ground only to the Splash Brothers. This is not someone with a slow release capitalizing on the easiest shots. He is not out there exclusively swishing standstill bombs.
Spot-up threes accounted for nearly 62 percent of Hield's attempts from downtown, but he has layers to his range, and the Sacramento Kings leverage his touch in many forms.
He averaged more points per possession in transition last season than Curry, Thompson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James...the list goes on. And Hield didn't stand out on the back of low volume. Only five players finished more possessions on the break—the Kings were caps-lock FAST—and he didn't shy from spraying treys in those situations.
Hield also rated in the 84th percentile of scoring efficiency off screens and the 81st percentile on hand-offs. He has some stop-and-pop flair. He banged in a combined 40.8 percent of his one- and two-dribble threes and put down 37.4 percent of his pull-up triples overall.
Setting up others is Hield's next frontier—if he has one. He looks uncomfortable on the occasions Sacramento puts him in the pick-and-roll and passes without much purpose when driving toward the basket. He could stand to attack the rim more in general, even if only to try generating more trips to the charity stripe.
In the meantime, Hield's shooting is elite across many of the most important areas, the sum of which render him more than just a shooter and one of the NBA's most underrated players.
9. D'Angelo Russell, Golden State Warriors
Reasonable minds can disagree on D'Angelo Russell, and they often do. Division is a constant in conversations about his 2018-19 breakout, as well as the larger discussions about where he stands relative to the league's elite.
Proof of this disconnect is never far away: ESPN's panel put him at No. 26 in their top 100, comfortably ahead of fellow marquee guards Devin Booker (No. 30), Jrue Holiday (No. 31) and Chris Paul (No. 32). Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney slotted him at No. 44, behind the aging Marc Gasol (No. 42) and Paul Millsap (No. 43).
Rankings are not an exact science. Opinions vary on every player. But the D'Angelo Russell dichotomy is larger than most—massive, even. A friendly medium does not exist.
Did he deserve to be an All-Star last season or was Eric Bledsoe snubbed as an injury replacement? Does it matter that Caris LeVert was the Brooklyn Nets' best player before he suffered a dislocated foot? Or that Russell spent some time at the beginning of the year on the bench down the stretch of close games? Or that Brooklyn always seemed destined to move on from him, with or without two new stars, after his career year?
Diving too far down the rabbit hole amounts to an undue devaluation of Russell. Star or not, he appears to have turned a corner. Last season's detonation may run counter to his previous three, but the level of difficulty ascribed to his offensive role cannot be dismissed.
Russell jump-started more pick-and-rolls per game than anyone except Kemba Walker, and just six players launched more pull-up threes, which he hit at a respectable 34.9 percent clip. His volume on longer twos shows poorly if he's not knocking them down, but he shot 46.9 percent between 10 and 22 feet. He's not the league's crowning playmaker, but he threw nifty passes on the move and averaged 7.0 assists per game.
True to form, Russell's outlook in 2019-20 is a high-variance one.
On one hand, his fit beside Stephen Curry tantalizes. They are two of the only three players in NBA history who have cleared 25 points, eight assists and three made triples per 36 minutes for an entire year. Both are talented enough shooters to play off the other, and the Golden State Warriors are no stranger to accommodating mid-range volume.
On the other hand, Russell didn't break out in Brooklyn until he had absolute freedom. He won't have as much latitude next to Curry and Draymond Green. Carrying lineups without them will be harder. The Warriors don't have the supporting cast. Joe Harris would be their best non-star.
Putting Russell here attempts to hedge against both extremes. It is neither a full-fledged endorsement nor an insult. It is instead an admission that, yes, Russell's breakout last year was probably a little fluky, but he's also still a standout player in a league overrun with them.
8. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
Victor Oladipo's fall from the greater top-20-player discussion is twofold. His recovery from a torn right quad is part of the reservation. He's not expected back until December or January, and we don't have a good frame of reference for what he might look like upon return. He may need more than a half-season to get right.
Pinpointing where he belongs is complicated further by last year's regression. His efficiency plunged almost across the board. He reached the rim and foul line less often, and his hit rate on pull-up threes dropped to 29.7 percent, a distant cry from the 35.6 percent he notched in 2017-18.
To be fair, Oladipo was battling the injury bug before suffering a ruptured right quad tendon. He missed 11 games in November and December with a right knee issue and didn't look right upon rejoining the rotation.
As far as reassurances go, this isn't very encouraging.
The Pacers need 2017-18 Oladipo to unlock their offense. Otherwise, Malcolm Brogdon, Aaron Holiday and Domantas Sabonis become their primary playmakers. And his wing defense remains critical if Indiana is going to get away with dual-big lineups—or even TJ Warren-at-the-4 arrangements.
Best-case scenario: Oladipo comes back, works through the rust and is close to right in time for the playoffs. Even then, his season will be confined to a smaller sample. When factoring in the incumbent risk associated with his return and what it might do to his explosion, it makes sense to hedge.
7. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
CJ McCollum's standing among the NBA's biggest names deserves to be relitigated following last year's postseason explosion, but to what end?
ESPN's top-100 panel ranked him 13th overall, a vote of confidence so ambitious it seems to undermine its intent. Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney put him 32nd in his top-100 hierarchy, a finish far easier to get behind.
Maybe McCollum winds up outstripping "safer" projections. Postseason dependability comes at a premium, and his scoring translates to the pressure cooker. He's averaging 24.8 points over the Portland Trail Blazers' past two playoff stays, a 20-game sample, while knocking down nearly 40 percent of his three-point attempts. His finishing around the rim has typically improved in these smaller samples.
Working next to Damian Lillard has its advantages, but McCollum's volume isn't propped up by freebies. His scoring is not predicated on getting to the line, and he made more pull-up three-pointers in the regular season than Kevin Durant over fewer appearances. That says more about Portland's reliance on its two guards than anything, but it doesn't render the feat insignificant.
Assuming he doesn't own another defensive gear, McCollum has the most room for growth in the playmaking department.
The Blazers predominantly punted on using him without Lillard last season, but this year's depth chart, by all appearances, will necessitate more solo minutes. If he ups his assist total while keeping the offense afloat during whatever Dame-less stints he sees, his placement here will be remembered as a tad too cautious.
6. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Two underwhelming postseason performances, coupled with a slow start to last year, have turned Donovan Mitchell into a big-time target. To consider him overrated is trendy (maybe even a majority opinion), not unlike Jayson Tatum or, to a slightly lesser degree, Ben Simmons.
Taking a lower-rung position on Mitchell toes the line of irrational. It'd be flat-out unacceptable if not for the aggressive hype-up campaigns he's enjoyed. Adidas didn't make him any fans outside Utah by trolling Simmons during their rookie campaigns, and the comparisons to a prime Dwyane Wade have, understandably, invited inflammatory rebuttals.
Remove yourself from the legislative avalanche and it gets easier to appreciate Mitchell's outlook. Last season's struggles were blown out of proportion. Mitchell returned to form by Christmas, averaging 26.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists on league-average(ish) true shooting over his final 47 appearances.
Dwelling on his playoff troubles disregards both the circumstances under which they came and his inexperience. Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio finished second on the Jazz in field-goal attempts during the 2018 and 2019 postseasons, respectively. That Mitchell was so instrumental to a quasi-contender as a rookie and sophomore is more telling.
Utah does need more from its lead guard to be better than a fringe championship hopeful. Mitchell has to reach the rim and get to the foul line more consistently, and his pull-up jumpers must start falling at higher clips if he's going to continue taking them.
Cynics are free to hold him more accountable beginning now. The additions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic alleviate his shot-creation strain while affording him more room to operate when he is on the ball. Given Mitchell's body of work without this many offensive buffers, the prevailing assumption should be the most efficient version has yet to come.
5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker finally getting help should be a bigger development.
Ricky Rubio tilts too far toward the ball-dominant end of the spectrum, but he is an upgrade over the table-setters the Phoenix Suns have been trotting out. Tyler Johnson and rookie Ty Jerome are secondary ball-handling outlets themselves, and smaller measures of help should come from Kelly Oubre Jr. and sophomore-year Mikal Bridges.
Everything Booker has done without so much as a single safety net informs what's to come. No more than 43.7 percent of his made buckets have been assisted since 2016-17, and he ranked third in contested shot attempts per game last season, trailing only Donovan Mitchell and James Harden.
That his three-point clip didn't duck below 33 percent before 2018-19 is borderline impressive. And even with that 32.6 percent success rate from distance, his true shooting sniffed the league average.
Extra off-ball possessions should be a spike for Booker's overall efficiency. He canned 37.6 percent of his spot-up threes last year. Those opportunities just didn't account for enough of his volume. Under 14 percent of his looks came as standstill treys. Kemba Walker, a fellow overtaxed No. 1 option, launched catch-and-shoot threes far more often.
Fronting lineups as the de facto point guard still needs to be part of Booker's routine. Trial by fire has helped him develop a solid feel out of the pick-and-roll, and this season, Phoenix has stocked the rotation with actual shooters. Lineups featuring Booker at the 1 with a small-ball 4 put up points in bunches last year. They have even more value now, regardless of how much defensive ground they relinquish.
With better circumstances come greater expectations. Booker isn't quite out of excuses—the Suns aren't contenders—but he's on the best roster of his career. Results, in some form, are non-negotiable. Will he be more attentive on defense? Get to the rim more often? Drain more of his off-the-bounce jumpers?
Answering in the affirmative is not unreasonable—at least on offense. Only three other players have matched his scoring and assist output per 36 minutes, true shooting percentage and total court time through their first four seasons: Walter Davis, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.
For all the knocks against Booker, Phoenix's penchant for disappointment isn't shared by him. He's closer to deserving the benefit of the doubt than not.
4. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
Jrue Holiday has fortified his place among the stars with a defensive motor that knows no single position. He's listed at 6'4", but he sports the strength and speed for the New Orleans Pelicans to stick him on almost any wing player without overextending the controlled aggression that makes him so effective.
Other teams would kill for that kind of versatility in their backcourt. Defensive gameplans are easier to build when the question of who will guard the opposition's most dangerous perimeter player isn't a question at all. Holiday will continue to draw the Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, etc. assignments.
When the most dangerous outside scorer is a borderline big, the Pelicans won't always care. He saw ample time on Kevin Durant last season.
Despite a defensive reputation that has swelled over the past two seasons, Holiday still struggles to grab traditional star recognition. Playing in Anthony Davis' shadow in no way helped, but his offensive profile lacks a cliche aesthetic.
Off-the-dribble shooters win over masses. That isn't Holiday's game. Last season, he hit a so-so 35.4 percent of his catch-and-fire treys while converting just 30.9 percent of his pull-up triples. He's also not someone synonymous with going it alone. That, in fact, is a curse of playing with Davis, and it isn't entirely fair.
The Pelicans' previous regime didn't exactly do a bang-up job of fleshing out their supporting cast. They were outscored by 2.7 points per 100 possessions last season when Holiday logged time without Davis, and it should have been worse. Their most-used lineup on the year under those circumstances: Holiday, Frank Jackson, Kenrich Williams, Darius Miller and Jahlil Okafor.
At the risk of oversimplifying Holiday's value, he averaged close to 20 points and eight assists last year. He may not be the first choice to headline an offense, but he's not supposed to be.
3. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Harping on All-NBA snubs is mostly bad form. Slights are too frequently bemoaned without suggestions for who among the chosen should be excluded.
Bradley Beal's absence from last season's All-NBA ballot isn't as hollow. He belonged on it. Identifying who didn't is not thoughtlessly easy, but neither Kemba Walker nor Russell Westbrook seemed to have an airtight case over Beal. His exclusion felt more like an indictment of the 32-win Washington Wizards.
Citing "good player, bad team" is not adequate enough cover. Walker's Charlotte Hornets tallied 39 victories.
Beal averaged 25.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 58.1 percent true shooting. Only nine other players in league history have hit those same-season benchmarks. That the Wizards played opponents to a draw with Beal on the court after the trade deadline, when they didn't have Otto Porter Jr. or John Wall, is worth a gasp or two.
Longevity is all that separated him from his direct competition, and the story hasn't changed. Beal is a reputable All-Star, but he has seldom needed to ferry the well-being of an entire offense on his own. Walker's solo act became his norm. In that way, Beal still totes the burden of proof.
This isn't meant to imply he's deliberately held back. Last season elevated his profile into the overall top-20 discourse. He has the runway to climb higher if he delivers an encore. But too much in Washington remains unsettled to grant Beal the dare-to-dream treatment.
This year's roster is weaker than last year's. Shot quality will be an issue. Beal cleared 3,000 minutes last season. The Wizards might curb his usage this year—if not out of the gate, then almost assuredly once they fade far enough from the postseason picture. Will he even finish the year in Washington?
Beal's situation wants for fundamental certainties. He is talented enough to play above them, but they matter.
2. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
Everyone rankled by Paul George getting looped into the shooting guard equation should find a new slant. Putting him among the small forwards wouldn't have helped him secure better than a second-place finish.
It doesn't sound like George's recovery from a shoulder injury will keep him out of action beyond November. This counts as reassuring news after he underwent two surgeries over the offseason. It comes as even more of a relief for those who believe that, despite sentiments to the contrary, the Clippers will manage Kawhi Leonard's workload throughout the regular season.
Full-strength Paul George is one of the 10 best players in the league. Almost no one can handle guarding No. 1 options while floating a 1B's burden at the other end. George has that stamina.
Last season in Oklahoma City, he pushed the bill further, carrying effective units without Russell Westbrook. Even when the two played together, George had the carte blanche of a first option. He initiated about the same number of pick-and-rolls per game as Westbrook and shot 38.6 percent from deep on a steady stream of difficult attempts. Close to 33 percent of his made treys went unassisted, up from 19.7 percent in 2017-18.
George rode that role expansion to a career-high 28 points per game.
His fit beside Leonard is more seamless because he should get the best of both worlds. Leonard profiles as the No. 1, but the Clippers don't employ another ball-dominant playmaker aside from Lou Williams. George will have a comparable amount of shot-creation duties without the attention of a traditional No. 1 or the bare-bones spacing he played through in Oklahoma City.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
It is impossible to adequately contextualize James Harden's performance the past two seasons. Make that four seasons. He's averaging 31.1 points and 8.7 assists since 2015-16 on 61.2 percent true shooting.
Even Harden's staunchest critics cannot write off his blend of volume and efficiency. The exaggerated contact, might-be-but-aren't travels, unguardable step-backs and, now, one-legged three-pointers all seem gimmicky. They irritate even more when they're coming off seven-plus dribbles and during a half-court possession on which it doesn't seem like anyone other than Clint Capela moved an iota.
Harden's approach looks and feels inorganic, more hack than strategy.
Here's the thing: NBA players don't get points for style. Baskets register on the scoreboard, and Harden gets buckets. How he's reaching the foul line or attempting his threes doesn't take away from the results. And the results are, most of the time, incomprehensible.
Harden's efficiency defies the sheer enormity of his role. He accounted for over 45 percent of the Houston Rockets' total offense last season when combining his scoring with the points he generated off assists. His 40.5 usage rate stands as the second-highest in league history, behind now-teammate-again Russell Westbrook.
Therein lies the sole complication of Harden's outlook. His fit with Westbrook is not a sure thing. Harden's game will be the least impacted of the two, but his partnership with a high-usage non-shooter is still part of the calculus.
Evaluating him outside Houston's roster framework helps neutralize some of the "But there's only one ball!" bias that creeps in. He bends defenses more than anyone save for Stephen Curry. Aggressive pick-and-roll coverages are rendered futile by his nifty pocket passes.
Select superstar peers remain above Harden, though he can be the best player in any given season. Top-five stars have that ceiling.
But he's more of a defensive chess piece in the wrong way than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and even LeBron James. The "Harden is good at defense" crowd has a leg to stand on when the Rockets can switch liberally and monitor one-on-one assignments. That stance will be tested during the presumably long stretches he spends next to Westbrook.