Ranking the Top 15 Guards in 2021 NBA Free Agency

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 19, 2021

Ranking the Top 15 Guards in 2021 NBA Free Agency

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    Just a couple of weeks shy of the official start of the NBA's 2021 free-agency period on August 2, there's still time to dive into this offseason's class of potential difference-makers.

    While this summer isn't loaded with available superstars, there are indeed difference-makers at every position.

    As the lines between traditional designations continue to blur, and positionless basketball takes hold, it makes less and less sense to separate them here.

    So, in anticipation of free agency, we'll provide lists of the top guards, forwards and bigs available. You might quibble over the classifications of a few players here and there. Some judgment calls were made. But for the most part, placement was pretty easy once the three categories were established.

    The subject we'll tackle here is the first one, and we'll include primary and secondary creators, old-fashioned 2s and everything in between. In a word, guards.

    Of course, prognosticating is far from an exact science. And though age, size, advanced metrics and forecast systems like FiveThirtyEight's help, we can't avoid a hefty helping of subjectivity.

    When all those factors are tossed into the pot, the following stew eventually comes out.

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    15. Josh Richardson (Player Option)

    When Seth Curry and Josh Richardson were traded for each other last offseason, it seemed like a deal with classic win-win potential. The Philadelphia 76ers would get a floor-spacer to put between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and the Dallas Mavericks would get a perimeter defense boost. For Richardson, open catch-and-shoot looks created by Luka Doncic had to be enticing too.

    Things went according to plan for the Sixers, but Richardson never seemed to settle in with Dallas. He posted a career-low box plus/minus (BPM is "...a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference), and the Mavs' point differential was comfortably worse when he played.

    Still, if Richardson can regain the outside shooting prowess he showed early in his career, he can be a helpful three-and-D addition.

          

    14. Victor Oladipo

    Victor Oladipo has played in just 88 games for three different teams over the last three seasons. And on top of the red flags that come with that lack of availability, he's had a below-average true shooting percentage in each of those three campaigns.

    There have been flashes of the slasher and disruptive perimeter defender we once knew, but they were few and far between in 2020-21. At this point, he's a bit of a gamble, but some team will take that.

          

    13. Alex Caruso

    A career mark of 37.7 percent from three is nice, but most of Alex Caruso's basic numbers don't really leap off the screen. And that makes him a good illustration of why we can't always rely on basic numbers.

    Caruso is one of the game's grittiest defensive guards, can create a bit in a pinch and is a reliable floor-spacer for lineups with ball-dominant wings. It's no wonder that the Los Angeles Lakers' point differential per 100 possessions has been better with Caruso on the floor in each of his four seasons. 

           

    12. Patty Mills

    Patty Mills will turn 33 in August. He's a career reserve with a career-high scoring average of 11.6 points (which he accomplished in 2019-20). Teams may not be lining up to acquire his services, but the Australian guard is about as reliable as backups get, and he could raise his profile a bit at the Tokyo Olympics.

    Mills already led the Boomers to an exhibition upset over Team USA earlier this month, and the freedom with which he plays for the national team could be something that intrigues suitors around the league.

    As a cog in Gregg Popovich's highly structured San Antonio Spurs system, Mills has been a plus-minus wonder, but he could be a bona fide heat-check guy with a bit more leeway. 

          

    11. Dennis Schroder

    Fresh off a strong 2019-20 campaign in which he finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting, Dennis Schroder experienced something of a regression to career norms alongside LeBron James with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    So, the question now is whether he's the slashing, mid-range assassin he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder or the up-and-down, borderline ball-stopper he's been just about everywhere else.

    If any organization ponies up for the $100-120 million Schroder is reportedly after, it'll certainly be hoping for a return of the former.

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    10. Derrick Rose

    In his age-32 season, a decade after he won the MVP, Derrick Rose finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting behind 14.7 points per game (21.4 per 75 possessions) and a career-high 38.8 three-point percentage.

    But he also played just 25.6 minutes over 50 games. And 51 appearances is the most he's managed in a single season since 2016-17.

    He's proven he can still be a helpful offensive player, but there's a bit of a dice roll when it comes to his health.

          

    9. Spencer Dinwiddie

    ACL tears aren't as consistently career-altering as they once were, but there's still an element of concern when a player is coming off the season-ending knee injury.

    For Spencer Dinwiddie, it also stifled the momentum that he built during the 2019-20 campaign, when he averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists in place of the oft-injured Kyrie Irving.

    Dinwiddie's game isn't overly reliant on side-to-side burst, though. His vision and savvy should still be there for 2021-22, making him, at the least, one of the top backup guards available.

           

    8. Devonte' Graham (Restricted)

    Devonte' Graham took a step back in terms of playmaking responsibility with the arrival of LaMelo Ball, but he remained a plus-minus boon for the Charlotte Hornets.

    On the season, they were plus-3.0 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor and minus-7.7 when he wasn't.

    Solid playmaking, volume three-point shooting (37.5 percent on 8.7 attempts per game) and general know-how on defense (even if he's not big enough to always make an impact there) make him one of the game's steadier guards.

           

    7. Norman Powell (Player Option)

    Floor-spacing wings who can be trusted with various defensive assignments are one of the most sought-after player archetypes in the league.

    And though 6'3" Norman Powell is a little shorter than some might like for that role, his 6'11" wingspan helps, and the three-point shooting is there.

    Over the last two seasons, he's averaged 17.5 points and 2.3 threes while shooting 40.6 percent from deep.

            

    6. Tim Hardaway Jr.

    Like Powell, Tim Hardaway Jr. brings a lot to the floor-spacing department, and his volume there actually gives him a slight edge in these rankings.

    Over the last two seasons, there are only five players (Davis Bertans, Stephen Curry, Wayne Ellington, Damian Lillard and Duncan Robinson) who match or exceed Hardaway's marks for three-point attempts per 75 possessions (9.4) and three-point percentage (39.4).

    Doncic certainly deserves some credit for creating many of those looks, but a willing receiver helps ball-dominant creators too.

5. Reggie Jackson

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    Before you call the recency bias police, consider a few of the factors that drove Reggie Jackson so far up this list.

    First, the blistering three-point shooting we saw in the playoffs (40.8 percent on 7.5 attempts per game) wasn't a fluke.

    Over the first four years of his career, Jackson shot 29.4 percent from deep. He climbed to 35.4 percent for the next four years. And over the last two, he's at 41.9 (peaking at 43.3 in 2020-21). The steady climb suggests this is just who Jackson is now.

    Another plus is Jackson's willingness and ability to essentially function as a wing. He's listed at 6'2", but a 7-foot wingspan allows him to work in positionless, switch-happy lineups, which have become increasingly important in today's perimeter-oriented game.

    On the other end, Jackson has proved content to work off the ball while possession-dominating wings like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard operate the offense.

    And in the playoffs, especially after Leonard went down with a partially torn ACL, Jackson proved he can bring all of the above in the highest-leverage moments.

    Across 19 postseason appearances (17 of which were starts), he averaged 17.8 points, 3.4 assists and 3.1 threes. In those games, the Los Angeles Clippers were plus-8.8 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the floor and minus-4.4 with him off.

4. Mike Conley

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    As is the case with Oladipo, Rose and Dinwiddie, there are definite injury concerns with Mike Conley. In his age-33 season, he missed 21 contests. And over the last four seasons, he's been available for just 58.4 percent of his teams' games.

    Size could be an issue with Conley, as well. He's 6'1" and doesn't have the major plus-wingspan that someone like Jackson has. Against positionless lineups with a little size, that can cause problems on defense.

    When he's healthy, though, Conley's outside shooting and steady hand at the wheel make him a significant offensive weapon. This season, he averaged 16.2 points and posted career highs in threes per game (2.7) and three-point percentage (41.2).

    And his willingness to sort of fill in the gaps between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert suggests he's adapted the ancillary role he'll likely play for the rest of his career.

    On the season, the Utah Jazz were plus-17.8 points per 100 possessions with Conley on the floor and plus-5.9 with him off, giving him the seventh-biggest net-rating swing in the league among players with at least 1,000 minutes.

3. Kyle Lowry

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    Age may be starting to catch up with 35-year-old Kyle Lowry. He only appeared in 46 games this season (though a late-season tank job may contribute to that number), and he posted his lowest BPM since 2009-10.

    The attributes that should make him intriguing to title contenders are still in place, though.

    Lowry remains a valuable off-ball and pull-up floor-spacer. He shot 39.6 percent on 7.2 three-point attempts per game in 2020-21, including 37.7 percent on pull-ups.

    The ability to operate both on and off the ball is critical for modern point guards, and Lowry has plenty of experience with the latter from his years playing alongside DeMar DeRozan, Kawhi Leonard and Fred VanVleet.

    If he goes to a team with a star wing or other ball-handler, he'll fit in just fine.

    On the other end, a slight regression in lateral mobility may be a problem, but Lowry is an experienced, high-IQ defender who'll typically be in the right spots and giving plenty of effort.

    This next contract will probably be his last significant one, but there's plenty of reason to believe he'll live up to it.

2. Lonzo Ball (Restricted)

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    Prior to his trade to the New Orleans Pelicans ahead of the 2019-20 season, consistent outside shooting was the only major concern with his game.

    He had (and still has) excellent vision as a passer, a willingness to move the ball both in transition and the half court, good rebounding and defensive instincts and plus size for a guard.

    Career marks of 31.5 percent from three and (even more ghastly) 43.7 percent from the line after those two seasons were more than concerning, though.

    Fast forward to now and there's ample reason for optimism. In his two seasons with the Pelicans, Lonzo is at 37.6 percent from three on 7.2 attempts. His free-throw percentage there is 66.4.

    With all the other boxes he checks, he really doesn't have to be much better than that as a shooter to be a clear positive player.

    Over the last two seasons, when he's on the floor with Zion Williamson, New Orleans is plus-5.8 points per 100 possessions. It's minus-2.2 when Zion plays without Lonzo.

1. Chris Paul (Player Option)

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    Chris Paul's last two seasons in the NBA have done wonders for his legacy, trade value and potential free agency this summer.

    Prior to his lone campaign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, his deal felt like a borderline albatross. Now, it wouldn't be shocking to see him opt out of the final year and $44.2 million he's owed for 2021-22. Even at 36 years old, there's almost certainly some team out there (maybe even the Phoenix Suns) who'll give him one more two- or three-year deal.

    Beyond the still-solid numbers (17.0 points, 7.8 assists and a 60.5 true shooting percentage with OKC and Phoenix), Paul has proved himself an effective leader and mentor for younger players. And a seemingly insatiable competitive drive, years of experience and infectious passing would add credibility to any offense in the league.

    He isn't likely to be anyone's long-term solution, but he's shown there are at least a year or two left of high-end floor generalship.

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