By: Dan Grant
A wise man (well, Jalen Rose) once said ‘Positions were created so a novice could follow the game’. While that’s true, it’s interesting that many players self-identify as playing a certain position but not another. Every off-season there seems to be story after story about players evolving their games because they want to spend more time at position X, or that they think they’re being used incorrectly by spending so many minutes as position Y. We’re forever hearing about ‘tweeners’ and guys that ‘don’t have a true position’, or guys trying to add the three point shot so they can become a ‘stretch four’. All this is happening even as the Golden State Warriors are attempting to eliminate positions entirely and play basketball in a way that reminds me of a peanut butter sandwich with pickles and hot sauce. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but goddamn is it delicious.
Check out these questions that have sparked furor in NBA circles recently and/or forever.
Paul George is going to play the 4 this year? Oh no, he can’t handle that!
Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe can’t play together, can they?
Just what the hell is Giannis Antetokounmpo anyway?
Is Tim Duncan really a power forward or did he switch to center years ago?
If you give Derek Fisher bad news, does his face change?
So much of NBA discussion is dominated by these debates, because while positions themselves might not matter, fit absolutely does.
When we’re talking about where a player fits in with a team, we’re talking about skill sets. And as the NBA gets smaller and more perimeter oriented, there’s a traditional skill set in the current NBA that seems like it might be gasping for air. I’m talking about the position that 90’s fans thought of as the key to the game of basketball: the go-to shooting guard.
Michael Jordan inspired a legion of young ballers to emulate him in every single way, and we were treated to numerous poor imitations over the years. The imitators saw the highlights of Jordan’s six rings; they rarely watched his struggles in the late 80’s, or read about him only winning once he learned to trust his teammates. The ‘clear out, I got this!’ offense threatened the game in the mid 2000’s, to the point that rule changes were imposed to make the game flow more freely. Basketball has been slowly moving away from this type of player ever since.
Let me be clear: this is a good thing! While some players possess the ability to be a fulcrum for their team from this position, many others have tried and failed. With that said, there are still a few left. Not many, but a few. And they just so happen to be the best at their craft.
So who are the best players at the NBA’s shallowest position?
First, we have to eliminate some people. Obviously every team has a starting shooting guard, but only a sparse few get to be considered for this arbitrary and meaningless designation! Let’s miff a few people, shall we? Superb!
While the present of the shooting guard isn’t inordinately deep, every team has one, and there has been an influx of talent in recent years. These guys aren’t in the conversation for the crown yet, but you might one day add them to the debate.
Will Barton – Denver Nuggets
Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – Detroit Pistons
Evan Fournier – Orlando Magic
Zach LaVine – Minnesota Timberwolves
CJ McCollum – Portland Trail Blazers
Ben McLemore – Sacramento Kings
Victor Oladipo – Orlando Magic
Nik Stauskas – Philadelphia 76ers
Some, like Oladipo and McCollum, are in the midst of harnessing their obvious talent. Others, like LaVine, Stauskas and McLemore, remain mega-talented enigmas. Bradley Beal just needs to stay in the friggin’ floor. Fournier, Barton and KCP seem like solid rotation guys, but who knows if they have greatness in them? The bottom line is that all these guys are still developing, and thus, can’t be considered.
While we’re discussing youth, it’s pertinent to mention the old-guard of the league guys who were definitely once involved in these conversations, but have gone on to greener pastures.
Kobe Bryant – Los Angeles Lakers
Joe Johnson – Brooklyn Nets
Dwyane Wade – Miami Heat
I’m not going to talk too much about these guys. If there are any Wade defenders out there, I feel you. But look, the guy is 34, he’s playing a career low in minutes and shooting a career worst from the field. The torch has been passed!
This is a funny group, because you see their names crop up in guard discussions from time to time, and you’re left thinking ‘Wait… what?’
The first is a group who are actually small forwards.
Tyreke Evans – New Orleans Pelicans
Paul George – Indiana Pacers
Gordon Hayward – Utah Jazz
Andrew Wiggins – Minnesota Timberwolves
These I can understand. Most shooting guards spend at least some time at small forward, if and when their team goes to a smaller lineup, and some of these guys have played shooting guard in the past. But the bottom line is that each of these guys starts next to a player that appears somewhere else on this list.
A similar group is the combo guards, guys who are a bit small to be considered traditional shooting guards and who tend to handle the ball quite a bit. Some are actually just point guards playing off the ball due to team scheme.
Eric Bledsoe – Phoenix Suns
Alec Burks – Utah Jazz
Monta Ellis – Indiana Pacers
I realize Monta has played the 2 for nearly his entire career, but he follows the Jason Terry model of an undersized guy who uses his speed to both score and create. He’s usually best paired with a point guard that is a knockdown shooter, because he generally needs the ball to be in his hands. Not a traditional shooting guard by any means.
True Two-Guards BUT…
Tony Allen – Memphis Grizzlies
Marco Belinelli – Sacramento Kings
Kyle Korver – Atlanta Hawks
JJ Redick – Los Angeles Clippers
Allen is a primo defender, while Bellinelli, Korver and Redick are just about the best shooters in the league. Great role players but they’re each in the league for one specific reason. Which in poor Kyle Korver’s case, is not defense.
Limited by role
Danny Green – San Antonio Spurs
Khris Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks
Both guys are limited by the teams they play on and they way they’re used. If they were gunners or played on terrible teams, they might have a chance to show more or put up better stats. As it is, they’re part of a concept that doesn’t necessarily use them incorrectly, but definitely limits the upside they’re able to display on a nightly basis. Neither is required to get their own shot or create for anyone else, though they might have the ability in a different situation.
Limited by talent
These guys just aren’t that good. They’re fine NBA players that each bring different skill sets to the table, but they’re not in the conversation and they never will be.
Arron Afflalo – New York Knicks
Avery Bradley – Boston Celtics
Eric Gordon – New Orleans Pelicans
Rodney Hood – Utah Jazz
Andre Roberson – Oklahoma City Thunder
Iman Shumpert – Cleveland Cavaliers
Wes Matthews- Dallas Mavericks
Wes gets his own category. He’s a knockdown three point shooter and a dogged defender when he’s fully healthy. He just got a max deal even though he blew his Achilles tendon. I love him deeply. But he’s nowhere near the conversation for the best shooting guard in the game. He’s basically above everybody we just mentioned but below the cream of the crop.
We’re finally here! We’ve talked about the rest, now let’s get to the best.
Candidates For The Crown
There are four players that are head and shoulders above the rest of the 2’s in the NBA. Each has a compelling case to be considered the best in the league, but as Highlander taught us, there can be only one!
Let’s break it down.
Jimmy Butler – Chicago Bulls
22.0/4.8/4.1/1.8/0.9 (Points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks)
37.9 minutes per game, leading the NBA for the second straight season.
The argument for Butler is just how hard he plays at both ends of the floor. While mired in a weird Chicago situation where they have too many big men and the husk of Derrick Rose running around, Butler has been a godsend for the Bulls the past two seasons, becoming their primary weapon as they attempt to get over the hump in the East. He’s a capable scorer, a good passer and a lockdown defender, all desirable qualities in an All-Star shooting guard.
However, Butler is limited by several factors. While he is capable of greatness (see his 40 point half against Toronto last week), he also disappears at times, mainly due to the fact that he’s not a great shooter. He is shooting 46% from the floor overall and he takes the ball to the restricted area with abandon (65% on 5.4 attempts per game), but his mid-range game is average at best (36% on 5.6 attempts). He improved his three point shooting last season, but he’s shooting just 33% from deep so far this year, and even that is mainly propelled by the fact that he’s shooting 57.1% from the right corner; he’s weak from everywhere else on the floor. A guy like that, with such obvious strengths and weaknesses, is going to be a player that’s guardable when he runs into the leagues best defensive coaches.
A final knock on Butler is health. He played 82 games in his second season, back in 2012-13, but other than that, he’s missed at least 15 games each season with a variety of injuries. I wonder if there is a correlation between this and his heavy minutes? To his credit, he’s played every game so far this season and with his counting statistics improving each year, it might not be long before Butler is considered the alpha dog at the shooting guard position.
DeMar DeRozan – Toronto Raptors
Shoots .845% on 8.4 free throw attempts per game, third in the NBA.
I’ve written extensively on DeRozan, and I’m biased by the fact that I’m a Toronto fan, but I’ll be honest and say I realize he’s not the one who’s going to win this argument. The piece linked to above does make a key point about his game, however. He seemingly adds a new skill each and every year, and once he masters a skill, he never loses it. First it was the mid-range game, then getting to the line. His defense, while still not great, has improved markedly over the past three seasons.
This year he’s taking fewer long twos, getting into the paint more and distributing for his teammates. He’s a slow burn, a player that has gradually improved each season as a pro and shows no signs of stopping. The three point shot has become something of a white whale for him, as if he could ever shoot it with any consistency, he might vault to the top of this list. For now? He’ll have to settle for being one of the contenders, as the argument really comes down to our final two names.
James Harden – Houston Rockets
Leads the NBA with 10.3 free throw attempts per game, shooting .868%.
Harden finished second in MVP voting last season and was voted the leagues MVP by the players. So far this season has been a relative disappointment, as he helped lead the Houston Rockets to a surprise Conference Finals appearance last year, and many expected them to make a leap and dominate the Western Conference. It hasn’t happened, in no small part because of Harden himself. He’s been selfish on offense and lazy on defense, all while under more intense scrutiny because of his wonderful play just a season ago.
The argument for Harden? He’s still easily the most talented offensive two guard in the league. He gets to the line at will, creates for teammates with aplomb, and the entire Houston offense runs through him on basically every possession, which is not something any of the other candidates can boast.
The argument against him is his obvious lack of effort on defense, the fact that he helped get his coach fired two weeks into the season and Houston’s horrendous start to the year. Despite his overwhelming talent, he also takes possessions off on offense, and his three point shooting has suffered this year (33% on an ill-advised 8.0 attempts per game), mainly due to poor shot selection. The crown was clearly his last season, but as always, there is a challenger to the throne.
Klay Thompson – Golden State Warriors
Shooting .435% from three, on a silly 7.7 attempts per game. Oh yeah, and he’s a reigning NBA champion.
Klay is a guy that might fit in some of the categories mentioned above, if he wasn’t so damn good. He’s young, still developing and he’s definitely limited by his role. However, that role happens to be as a starter on the most revolutionary basketball team of the current century, so it’s one that you have to commend him for accepting. Could he go to another team and put up Reggie Miller or at worst, peak Kevin Martin numbers? He’d bang those out in his sleep and he’d likely be even better. He’s not required to create off the bounce very much in Golden State, but he has flashed the ability from time to time. Also, unlike Harden, he’s a terrific defensive player who often guards the most dynamic offensive player on the opposing team.
The knocks? Well, he certainly has a hell of a lot of help. He makes threes at what would be a record rate, if he didn’t play next to the human heat check, Steph Curry. Playing with Curry and Draymond Green leaves him wide open a lot and takes a lot of pressure off him at the offensive end, leaving him with ample energy to excel at the defensive end of the floor. And while defensive coverage is a plus for Thompson, he doesn’t do much in the way of generating turnovers, averaging just 0.5 steals per game, very low for a guard.
In a recent interview, Klay was asked the question himself. His response?
‘I’m going to go with myself. We’re 26-1’.
Fair enough! But it begs the question: can you be the best shooting guard in the NBA when you’re not even the second best player on your team? Or the best guard on your team?
The answer, for me, is no. It’s not to say that Klay doesn’t have it in him, but for me, it comes down to the old ‘would they, or wouldn’t they?’ question. If Golden State got a call from Houston and they were offering Harden straight up for Klay, I think they at least have a conversation about it. If the Warriors call Houston and make the same offer, Daryl Morey hangs up the phone immediately.
So despite a bad attitude, waning effort, declining numbers and outright disdain from his teammates, James Harden still rules the day! What a lesson for the kids, amirite?
Watch out James, the youth are coming for you and your glorious beard. Get your guard up.