The season openers are just around the corner, so this is the time to rank the top players at each position going into the 2016-17 schedule, based on numbers, past performance and just personal preference.
Next up are the shooting guards because, well, it’s all about putting the ball into the basket:
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets: It doesn’t matter what Mike D’Antoni wants to call him or label him. The fact is he’s a scorer, plain and simple. Just because you put the ball in his hands even more -- if that’s possible -- and says he’s the point guard to trigger the offense, Harden is going to do what he does. That is put the ball into the basket by raining 3s, getting to the rim or holding a one-man parade to the free-throw line (837 attempts last season). He averaged 29 points, 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds per game and did not get voted to any of the three All-NBA teams. That’s because his team was a physical and mental mess (41-41) that barely made the playoffs. Now that thorn-in-his-side Dwight Howard is gone, the ball and the burden is all back with Harden now and he could produce numbers that go straight through the roof.
2. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors: Did you watch Game 6 of the Western Conference finals at OKC last spring? That’s Thompson at his out-of-this-world best, barely touching the ball or looking at the basket before firing up shot after shot that finds the bottom of the net. His numbers were slightly off last season and now Kevin Durant is climbing aboard the Warriors’ train. But don’t for a minute make the mistake of thinking he’s any less important or any less potent in the Golden State attack. Just so happens that the only player in the league that can rival him as a pure shooter just happens to play in the same backcourt. Toss in his peerless, consistent defense in the backcourt and Thompson is as good as it gets.
3. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls: It’s interesting to note that last year was regarded as a step-back season for Butler, even though his scoring (20.9 and assists 4.8) were both career highs. Like Harden, he became the fall guy for a lot of what went wrong overall with his team a year ago. But when Butler is engaged and feeling good about himself, he’s as good a two-way player his position as there is in the league. He made his bones at the defensive end, but now is an all-star level scoring threat. The only question is whether he and the veteran Dwyane Wade will both thrive as they share minutes and the ball. His ability as a lockdown defender puts him among the elite.
4. C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers: Teammate Damian Lillard stepped into the spotlight as Portland’s star performer quite comfortably and effectively last season and deserves all the credit he gets. However, for the Blazers to not only survive but thrive in the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge, Year Two, it took McCollum to rise to the challenge of increased minutes and full-time responsibility. He’s in the perfect spot in the Blazers’ backcourt as a dynamic second scorer. His scoring and assist numbers virtually tripled with the added playing time and a year of being a foundational piece in coach Terry Stotts’ offense under his belt should only mean bigger things this time around.
5. Dwyane Wade, Chicago Bulls: After a solid, healthy season where he only missed eight games in Miami, the questions about Wade’s health have subsided. Now the only thing up in the air is his fit in a lineup with Butler and Rajon Rondo, a couple of other guys who like to have the ball in their hands. Between the three of them, nobody is a threat to win a 3-point shooting contest and chemistry will be key to the Bulls this season. At 34, Wade is going back to his hometown in order to write the finishing chapters on a Hall of Fame career. He still has the goods. But did he take them to the right place?
6. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors: He’s the throwback that doesn’t get much of his offense from behind the 3-point line and doesn’t try. That’s the hole that could be patched to take his game to the next level. Athletic, pure scorer, not unlike Wade in his early years in the NBA, just finding a way to get the ball into the basket. He thrives in the backcourt as a perfect complement to Kyle Lowry and his commitment to the franchise by signing a new deal to be part of the 1-2 punch has lifted the Raptors to the level of serious contenders in the Eastern Conference, even if they’re still a notch below the Cavs. He gets to the throw line as often as anyone not named Harden or DeMarcus Cousins and that length makes DeRozan a solid defender.
7. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves: One more talented piece of the puzzle for the ascending Timberwolves. The third-year guard needs to extend his shooting range out beyond the 3-point line (30 percent last season) in order to open up the court for the rest of his game. Excellent postup skills make him virtually automatic down the block, either putting the ball in the hoop or drawing fouls and getting to the line. New coach Tom Thibodeau will take advantage of that length and quickness to make him an even more effective defender as the pack of Wolves grows teeth.
8. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: In another dry season out in the desert, he was as welcome as a drink of water. He got more minutes as the season progressed and had a breakout month of March, averaging more than 22 points. Booker’s game is as smooth as satin sheets and excels in the pick-and-roll game that is the NBA’s staple. It will only take more hours in the gym to expand that shooting ability to make him at least respectable from the perimeter and when that happens that Suns should have a solid scorer and potential All-Star in their midst to begin the franchise turnaround that’s been a long time coming.
9. Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic: While the Magic have been pedaling in place on a stationary bicycle for the past several years, he has flown beneath the radar to become one of the league’s most versatile offensive players. He’s smart and strong when he gets into the lane and is excellent at playing the catch-and-shoot game. Fournier was among just a handful of players that shot 45 percent from the field, 40 percent from behind the arc and 80 from the free-throw line last season. He signed a new deal to stay in Orlando, is comfortable with the team and should thrive in his first full season not sharing minutes with the departed Victor Oladipo.
10. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks: Yes, he’s got a torn hamstring that required surgery and could keep him on the sidelines until March. But you can’t have a top 10 list of shooting guards without the rising star, who would be ranked much higher if playing. Although the 25-year-old is barely older than the rest of Milwaukee’s core, Middleton had established himself as the steadiest hand on the roster. The Bucks will sorely miss his scoring ability and overall presence in their lineup.
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