Who has the Best Backcourt in the NBA? Part 1

Recently there has been a lot of talk about which team has the best backcourt in the league. This began with Dion Waiters stating that he and Kyrie Irving own the title. Next, John Wall stepped up and said that he and Bradley Beal gave the Wizards the best backcourt in the league.  In preparation for the Corner Three Positional Rankings and the Corner Three Top 100, we decided to tackle the backcourt argument using stats.

10. Minnesota Timberwolves 

Rubio

The Kevin Martin contract gets a good amount of criticism as an overpay, but in the end, this has lead to his being underrating as a player. Martin may be paid like a top 5 shooting guard, but he is still an above average two who plays average defense and is a great scorer, scoring 19 points a game and shooting 39% from 3 as well.

Ricky Rubio is another player who is often criticized, because of his poor shooting percentages over the first three years in the game. The issue is that this is only one aspect of the game, and Rubio’s other skills are elite. He was 2nd in total assists last year and had a top 5 assist rate, and on the defensive end he had the most total steals – 24 more than anyone else in the league – with 191. Rubio also lead the league in steal rate – he has both the volume and rate stats that prove he is a top defender. Although many people believe “gambling” for steals isn’t necessarily a sign of a good defender, evidence has shown that steals are, in fact, one of defense’s most important facets. Oh, and there is some new guy on the Timberwolves who might play a little shooting guard. His name is Wiggins. You may have heard of him.

 

9. Miami Heat

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Due to the presence of point forward LeBron James, Mario Chalmers hasn’t gotten his due. Chalmers can shoot from deep – 39% from 3 last year – and is an integral part of the blitzing defense that Erik Spoelstra employs. Chalmers is a solid league-average point guard, and his stats will prove it this year in a bigger role with the Heat.

Dwyane Wade is another player who has gotten a large amount of criticism recently. Wade isn’t the best shooting guard in the league (that goes to James Harden), but he is still surely top five at the position, with two being the league’s most shallow position in terms of breadth of talent. Wade lead all shooting guards in 2-point field goal percentage last season with a 56% percentage from 2, and even though that may have been aided by LeBron, he should be expected to put up larger volume stats this year, back as alpha dog for the Miami Heat.

8. Memphis Grizzlies

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Simply put, Mike Conley is the most underrated point guard in the league. Whether this is because he was always the 2nd guy in college behind Greg Oden, or because he plays his games in Tennessee, it doesn’t matter, because he is truly one of the best all-around players in the league. Last year, the Grizzlies somehow kept an average offense with a starting five of Conley, Courtney Lee, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol (when healthy, as he missed 20 games last year). Even when Gasol was healthy, he only shot 47% from the field, a very poor number for an All-Star big man, only to be “topped” by the 32-year old Randolph’s 46% shooting percentage. Just as a reminder, the Grizzlies finished one game behind the Warriors last season, and didn’t just win 50 games in the impossible Western Conference, but took the Thunder to seven in the playoffs. Had a player like Kyrie Irving (who has yet to win more than 33 games in a year in the terrible Eastern Conference) had this success while putting up Conley’s offensive stats (Conley had better offensive efficiencies than Irving, shooting 45% from the field vs 43%, and even having a better 3-point percentage, while averaging 6.0 assists to Irving’s 6.1 and averaging a solid .7 less turnovers per game), the league would be hailing Irving as perhaps its best point guard. Conley continues to be an elite defender and an above average offensive player, while having the leadership to run the offense even without another great offensive player on the team. Conley has proven himself to be a true top point guard in the league, and will continue to fly under the radar this year while leading the Grizzlies to yet another playoff appearance.

Conley has proven himself to be a great player, but this year he is going to even have more help. The Grizzlies have brought in the rejuvenated Vince Carter to fill out the backcourt, and Vince will probably fit in as the Grizzlies’ 2nd-best backcourt player. Carter isnt much of a defender anymore, but he has recreated himself as a great 3 point shooter, especially in the corner, which is the most efficient non-layup shot in the sport. Courtney Lee is not a great option to be a starting shooting guard, but as a 6th or 7th man he is well above average, and can also add 3-point shooting from the wing, to create more space for Conley and the two big men in the paint.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

Paul

There isn’t much left to say about Chris Paul that hasn’t already been said. He is not simply the best point guard in the league, but the best point guard of the past ten years. Paul continues to be a dominant offensive force, shooting 37% from 3, 50% from 2 and having the highest assist percentage in the league, ending up 6th in the league last season in Offensive Win Shares per Basketball Reference. Paul also continues to be a defensive stopper, as he is by far the best perimeter defender on the Clippers. He creates turnovers that lead to easy points, which is referenced by his 3.5% steal percentage, 2nd in the league behind Ricky Rubio. Paul also rated 2nd in the league, just behind LeBron (yes, that means ahead of Kevin Durant), in ESPN’s real plus-minus stat.

The reason that the Clippers are 7th and not in the top 3 is not because of their point guard, but instead because of their weak shooting guards. At this point, Jamal Crawford is one of the worst defensive players in the league. Last year in ESPN’s defensive plus minus, Crawford rated as the 72nd-best defensive shooting guard in the league, and overall, he rated as the 37th-best two-guard in the league by overall RPM stat. He is probably not as bad ESPN’s stat rates him, however, he is at best a league-average shooting guard, and nothing more. His partner, JJ Redick, has had issues with his injury history. Redick only played 35 games last year, and he hasnt played 82 games in over 4 years, when he was 25 on the Dwight Howard-lead Magic. Redick is only getting older, and his health is an issue where you can’t project 70 games out of him in a season. Redick is a great shooter, and plays solid defense, but more longevity would serve to move the Clippers up in these rankings.

6. Houston Rockets

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The Rockets are in a similar situation as the Clippers, with one player who is significantly better than his backcourt parter in James Harden. What gives the Rockets the edge in this ranking is a combination of Patrick Beverley being a bit better than the Crawford/Redick duo, and the massive gap between Harden and the rest of the league’s shooting guards.

Since James Harden was thrown into the number one role when he was traded to the Rockets,  he has been nothing short of the best two in the league. Harden has been critiqued for his defense with compilations of missed assignments, but advanced stats show he’s not actually that terrible, simply a slightly below average defender, as Harden posted 2.7 Defensive Win Shares last year (above such players as Bradley Beal and Thabo Sefolosha). Harden’s video game style of play is uber-efficient, as he was 2nd in the league in made free throws in 2013-14 and 11th in 3-point attempts, two of the most efficient ways to score points. Harden was 5th in the league in ESPN’s offensive RPM, only trailing LeBron, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. At just 25 years old, his best years may still be in front of him, and with his analytics-friendly style of play, he will continue to be the best shooting guard in the league.

Patrick Beverley is a great defensive player, and creates a perfect combination with Harden as the guy who can guard the opponent’s best scoring guard on any given night. Beverley was 6th among point guards in Defensive RPM, only trailing Eric Bledsoe, Rubio, Paul and Jrue Holiday among starting point guards. Beverley is not an offensive slouch either, shooting a solid 36% from 3 and 47% from 2, with the ability to run the high-powered Houston offense by himself when Harden is on the bench. Beverley is another young player who, in his third season in the league, could easily become a top 5 defensive point guard. His offensive game is also set to expand and improve with a larger role this year after the departure of Jeremy Lin.

Part 2 coming soon!

by Robert Garcia, Northwestern University

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