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Ranking the NBA's best backcourts
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Literature once was a great novel. In the internet age, it seems to be top 10 lists. In recent years, one of the principal such discussions in the NBA, and again continuing, is the debate over which team has the best backcourt. The position has gained in importance in the NBA as point guard now probably is the game’s most important position, akin in some respects to quarterback in football, closer in baseball and goal announcer in soccer.
The latest version of the debate basically started with Mark Jackson, whose parents apparently didn’t own a TV before 1980, declaring Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson the best backcourt in history. Though most certainly agreed it was better than Jackson and John Starks. Lately, which also is in tune with this era, the Cavs’ Dion Waiters declared himself with Kyrie Irving the best backcourt while John Wall agreed it was he and Bradley Beal. So who is the best tandem?
The most credentialed probably is the Lakers’ with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant since no one else can claim three MVP awards. Though given their age and infirmities, they probably don’t make the top 10 in this era. Though it would have been something to see them together.
It’s not as easy as you’d think to find high level backcourts because there are so many All-Star players matched with much lower level players, like Russell Westbrook and we’re not even sure whom in Oklahoma City and James Harden and they hope to find someone better in Houston. Dwyane Wade used to be someone. So did Deron Williams, though you can almost make the case with Joe Johnson. Almost. Rajon Rondo remains out hurt and is supposed to be traded when he’s not and the Clippers probably would be the favorite if Chris Paul had someone more special.
Also, point guard is not always a pure position as with hybrid point forwards, like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, you can have ultimate success without the classic point guard. So here’s one list:
1. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors. They probably are the best in this era even if Curry isn’t the classic point guard. In fact, that was the reason for the Andre Iguodala signing as they had been looking for a point forward type to play Curry off the ball. Interestingly, new coach Steve Kerr may start Harrison Barnes for Iguodala. Curry may be the league’s best shooter and if he improves his defense perhaps an MVP candidate. Thompson is a good defender and excellent shooter. The combination is the most versatile and productive.
2. Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, Bulls. Of course, there’s all the health stuff. But so far a lot of other guys are injured, including Durant. It happens. Rose seems good now and that’s how you judge. He’s a former league MVP and 26. He’s not likely to produce at that level, if ever again, given the depth and talent on the team now. But he remains probably the game’s most explosive player. Though Butler isn’t a high level shooter, he’s probably the league’s best shooting guard defender, especially now that Tony Allen is mostly a reserve. Plus, Rose has developed into one of the better point guard defenders. They may be the toughest to score against.
3. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns. It may be premature to rate them so highly as they played together about an hour and a half last season. OK, maybe a bit more, though Bledsoe was injured. He’s back and signed and while he was out Dragic became one of the best guards with the ball in the league and an all-NBA player. I still don’t know what they’re going to do with Isaiah Thomas, but those are two strong starting guards.
4. Tony Parker and Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs. If it were really Parker and Green, they probably don’t get this high. If it were Manu Ginobili, as it often is with Parker, there might be a case for No. 1 But Ginobili still comes off the bench. It’s tough, at times, to figure Gregg Popovich teams in the regular season with all the reserves he uses and the starters he rests. But given their success they have to be somewhere in there.
5. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors. They’re not much for passing the ball, though a bit better than when they had Rudy Gay. Lowry is one of the stronger and tougher guards and both had All-Star level seasons last year as DeRozan was an All-Star and USA Basketball member.
6. Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, Los Angeles Clippers. Perhaps they’d be a bit higher if it were Jamal Crawford with Paul, though Crawford is off the bench and that would be a flawed defensive duo. Paul’s elite, though has developed a penchant for big mistakes at big times, probably a product of his diminutive stature while being asked to carry so much. Redick is fairly one dimensional as a shooter with not a lot of imagination to his game.
7. Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers. Lillard has quickly developed into one of the more expansive point guards in the league. Matthews isn’t the classic shooting guard as he does a bit of shooting and a bit of defense, though nothing too outstanding. But still good.
8. John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards. Beal is out hurt again and while Rose’s injuries have been more publicized, Beal has had trouble in sustained stretches staying healthy. He’s one of the truly elite shooters, but Wall still really doesn’t have an NBA game. Yes, he is very fast and can get to the basket, but his shot is balky and he still has trouble finding shooters in good position or knowing when to shoot or pass. They’d move up if Wall gains a better understanding of playing point guard.
9. Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon, New Orleans Pelicans. This is a big if healthy one, though as they’re healthy now you cannot assume injuries. They’re the most forgotten team because of all the injuries the last two seasons. Holiday was an All-Star and Gordon was playing at that level at one time and played for USA Basketball. They could prove dynamic.
10. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers. I’m reluctant to even include them since LeBron James probably will be the primary ball handler. But Irving is coming off All-Star and USA Basketball MVPs and Waiters is a shooting guard potentially in the (good) Ben Gordon mold with more size. They have intriguing potential, though how much we’ll see them in those roles remains a question.
NBA news and notes
-- The big news in the NBA last week was the new $24 billion TV deal, which set off all sorts of alarm bells about a potential lockout in a few years, grumbles the owners tricked the players in 2011 with tales of losses and suggestions by players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant to change restrictions, like maximum contracts. Wonder who would benefit from that? Mark Cuban jumped at the idea and said sure as long as the players gave up guaranteed deals, which is the way they do business in the NFL and why its players are the least secure. Some analysts suggested ABC/ESPN and TNT overpaid considerably, which generated some nervousness around those operations. The view was it was a tactic to keep out competitors like Fox and NBC, who has been aggressively bidding for sports properties. There’s all sort of cash registers ringing in players’ eyes with projections of big salary cap increases. But it’s also instructive to consider the players’ association, which Chris Paul now leads. Look, LeBron James is worth more than he is paid, however huge that is. So was Michael Jordan. The true elite stars in a star driven league always are. There was immediate talk also about why players should sacrifice for winning; why not owners? I can’t disagree. That should be shared. Of course, if James gets paid $50 million, there’ll hardly be anyone left to play with as there will be a salary cap. The league would shut down for five years before giving that up. Which is going to be the interesting part: How to determine that amount. Remember the story about Isiah Thomas being left off the 1992 Dream Team? The story was the stars didn’t so much like Thomas and his Bad Boy Pistons. But I’ve often heard the real reason was when Thomas was head of the players association in the late 1980s. During one of the labor negotiations, he interceded for the “middle class” players for added pension money, which reduced the cap, and thus left less money for the biggest stars. Their agents, who generally influence the players association, basically blackballed Thomas through their players, eventually leading to the stars in 1992 basically voting Thomas off the honorary stage. Yes, always follow the money. Perhaps Paul will take a suggestion from the Suns, who signed the twins Markieff and Marcus Morris this summer for $52 million over four years and let them decide how the total should be divided. If the players’ association does that they certainly could sell that show to TV. By the way, Markieff got $32 million and Marcus $20 million.
-- No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins is off to a nice start shooting nine of 21, but 3-3 on threes, averaging 14.5 points and with 11 free throw attempts in two games. The Bulls see him Oct. 24 in a preseason game in St. Louis, along with last year’s No. 1, Anthony Bennett, who had 13 points and eight rebounds in his one preseason game he’s played of their two. ... One of the more interesting negotiations going on is in Utah with center Enes Kanter after the Jazz already paid Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward. It’s always risky to let a seven footer get to free agency, even if it’s restricted. ... Steve Kerr is off to a good start with Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams as his top assistants and it’s been going well with players. Said Harrison Barnes to Bay Area media of the two: ““They’re a hoot, especially together. Coach Adams is the guy with the old wise sayings, and coach Gentry is the smooth operator. It’s good to have their dynamic personalities.” Kerr is giving his staff considerable latitude and explained: “I want a staff that reflects the joy the players should play with.”… Wonder if Kobe Bryant is having fun yet. He and Steve Nash were a combined 3 for 18 for nine points Sunday as the Lakers lost by 41 points to a Warriors team that played 15 players. Bryant led the Lakers with the biggest minus in the plus/minus. Carlos Boozer is getting his shots up, 13 for 31 in the three games averaging 10.7 points.
-- Was that Chris Bosh signaling the made three pointer (three goggles, often used by NBA players making threes) to LeBron James in that game in Brazil? Bosh warned Kevin Love last week in media reports it can be difficult to play with James. Shock, mind you! Shock! You mean it wasn’t all we need is love in Miami? No one would have guessed seeing James and Dwyane Wade do all those press conferences without Bosh. So what. Your typical sports team is like your typical business office. Everyone like everyone? Rooting for someone else to do better than you? It’s not always easy to play with stars who dominate everything. It’s just being honest. The goggles signal in South America apparently is a personal profanity, by the way….Jimmer Fredette may have found a home as he seems to have moved ahead of Austin Rivers in New Orleans. … Luol Deng is 12-29 and 1-6 on threes and averaging 10 points in the Heat’s 0-3 preseason. … The Thunder seemed ready to start Mitch McGary, who went out last week with a foot fracture. Kevin Durant has since joined him leaving Russell Westbrook in the starting backcourt with Andre Roberson and Steven Adams at center. Meet your 2015 NBA scoring (and shots taken) champion.
-- The NBA draft is easy. Especially when judged—as fans and media generally do—after the player has not measured up. As your so called draft busts go, many differed about kick boxer Darko Milicic. But few did about Michael Beasley, who just left the NBA for China. There was serious debate on all the draft sites, including ESPN, until a few days before the draft whether to take Derrick Rose, the former MVP likely headed back to All-Star status, or Beasley at No. 1. Many even on draft night said and wrote Beasley was the right pick. Pat Riley wanted Rose, but took Beasley quickly second ahead of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook and more future All-Stars. It happens because there is no failsafe for human behavior. … Now there’s another new James Johnson, the Bulls higher pick in the draft they selected Taj Gibson. Johnson is back with Toronto, where he previously got run out and told the Toronto Star his D-league experience last season before going to Memphis made him a new man: “I flourished in the D-League. I am happy to say my career was bumpy, but going down to the D-league made the old James Johnson not exist anymore. It got my winner back. When I was down there I was the reason why my team was successful. I was the reason we were almost undefeated. I was everything to that team (Johnson averaged 18.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.9 steals, 3.4 blocks). I was the focal point, the guy everyone went to, sort of the DeMar and Kyle of this team I took it with me to Memphis. (In the D-League) everybody was looking at me to win and that was it. That’s when it clicked. I realized I was good enough to be the guy that helps the team win or be the guy that wins the game for our guys. Then when I went up to Memphis they had that already. Then it was just me playing my role and it clicked again.” Johnson had a domestic assault arrest last June with charges dropped in July as the Grizzlies didn’t ask him back. He has returned not lacking confidence, though it’s unlikely Lowry and DeRozan see him that way.
-- Maybe it’s good Joel Embiid will have a year in recovery to consider the NBA. He told Philadelphia media: “"I play a lot of video games so maybe sleeping at night is hardest. I know I need to get healthy. I know my diet is going to help me a lot. I need to lose weight, but sleep is always going to be hardest because I play video games all the time. When I left Kansas I weighed 230 pounds. When I got hurt (in a predraft workout) I was 280 pounds. I gained 50 pounds in three months. At Kansas, I wanted to play at 250. I wanted to be strong and not get pushed around. Right now I am at 270, so I have lost 10 pounds." This guy may take some time. … Perhaps Embiid’s not the next DeMarcus Cousins, who already leads the league in preseason technical. So much for the summer of maturing with USA Basketball. The talk is he’s returned even more difficult to deal with…In the take a while department, which seems to have the 76ers’ thrilled, is Nerlens Noel, who is putting up some of the most awkward shots anyone’s seen. … The Boston Herald headlined a story that coach Brad Stevens is “OK with Marcus Smart’s misses.” He should see plenty of them.