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Season Preview: NBA Backcourt Power Rankings No.5 – No.1

In a new two-part series, Garbh Madigan counts down the top ten backcourt partnerships in the NBA. Here’s Part II, discussing No. 5 – No. 1.

 “I think me and Ky (Kyrie Irving) are the best backcourt, young backcourt in the NBA. That’s all.” – Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers.

This arrogant confident statement sent the basketball media into a silly season tailspin as they clamoured around NBA players for opinions, including John Wall (who, unlike Waiters and Irving, made the play-offs with the Wizards) who rebutted Waiters’ sentiments on camera.

In modern day society it’s fun to simplify how we grade athletes to a ranking in a typically quicker factual process. Usually when rankings like these are created, their authors use complicated metrics and statistics for the effect when one of the players is off the court, advanced win shares, etc.

For the purposes of this off-season exercise, I will establish a ranking based on how worried I would be facing that backcourt in a play-off game, taking into account their personal abilities and how the backcourt coalesces and plays as a duo. Obviously, factors such as a team’s individual success as well as clutch late game play will contribute also.

Here’s the second part of our countdown, listing numbers five to one.


 

5. Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving & Dion Waiters

This ranking may be a stretch but now, with the well known upgrades the Cavs have made, may wreak havoc on the league – offensively at least! Waiters may have been off in his statements, which sparked the backcourt debate but his confidence is understandable given the upgrade the King and KLove bring to the squad.

Irving is not a great defender but when it comes to scoring, few can light up the scoreboard as fast and with as much style as Irving can, especially in the fourth quarter where he was probably an NBA League Pass All Star, making a dour team watchable.

If you haven’t seen his ball handling, you are in for a treat. Irving is unquestionably talented, and he may be the best ball-handler in the game. If James’ influence forces him to develop on defence, he could improve beyond being Pepsi’s “Uncle Drew” to a top three point guard in the league this year.  With the confidence of being named FIBA World Cup MVP, Irving is a legitimate part of the Cleveland “Big Three.”

The one thing holding these two back with the exception of questionable defence is their supposed beef with one another. In fact, Waiters play could derive in so many different outcomes; differing from being an offensive spark plug to a sixth man of the year candidate (depending on line-ups) to having more disputes with team mates due to his selfishness and being a likely trade candidate.

To be clear, Waiters will be labelled the problem if any disputes occur as the Cavs have committed to Irving with a maximum five year 90 million dollar contract.  One thing is for sure – Waiters shoot first mentality bordered on the obscene and won’t be tolerated on a championship contender.

After all, maybe this was a stretch in the rankings.

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4. Portland Trail-Blazers: Damian Lillard & Wesley Matthews

Those who have perennially underrated Wesley Matthews will either see this as a stretch or an over evaluation of Damian Lillard.  The latter is a scoring beast who is a threat from everywhere on the court and is on the way to becoming the next superstar of the game who can only improve with more defensive strides.

In fact, it is hard to believe this will only be Lillard’s third season as the former Rookie of the Year is averaging 20 PPG for his career already and played like a stud in his first play-off appearances. This was just cold – and a sign of things to come.

The perfect foil for the Oakland native is Wes Matthews. Undrafted, Matthews plays with a similar vigour to wrong his doubters that Lillard does, but in a totally different way.  Matthews had to ensure he stayed in the league by playing defence and it has become his speciality as he is able to guard both wing spots and some point guards to make up for Lillard’s fraility.

Forever evolving, Matthews drilled 39.3 % of his triples last year. Efficiency met volume as well; Matthews’ 511 attempts ranked fourth in the league. He possesses a sneaky post game against smaller guards as he punishes opponents with remarkable strength and his 6’5 frame as well.

The more that Lillard improves even more as a penetrator, dragging all the attention away from the wing, expect Matthews’ numbers to improve even more despite playing on a stacked squad including Nic Batum.  The Trailblazers won’t sneak up on anyone this year, mainly because now they are acknowledged as elite.  With a better bench, this team could be lethal in 2015.

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3. Washington Wizards: John Wall & Bradley Beal

So early in their development and these two are already in the top three. Even factoring in improvement for the youthful Wall (23) and Beal (21), it just seems a bit too early to rank them any higher.

Beal and Klay Thompson are jostling for second position behind James Harden for the best offensive two-guard in the league at the moment. A terrific shooter with the prettiest of shooting strokes, Beal is constantly improving his off the dribble game and projects as a force for years to come.

While his player efficiency rating (PER) was below average at 14.3, shooting a middle of the road 41.9 % from the field – Beal was still a player in just his second year in the league. Up to now, the Wiz had the luxury of Trevor Ariza and Wall harassing the opposition’s best two front court players on defence.

Beal’s defence was better than we believed when he was drafted, but without Ariza; Beal may need to refocus on the less glamorous end of the floor. At 21 he has a long way to go yet, but is set for stardom in this league, especially if the Wiz can hold him and Wall together for the next ten years.

John Wall fits in perfectly with Beal as the organisation has surrounded their star with top complimentary talent. Most importantly, Wall has the talent and court I.Q to take advantage of his strong offensive unit and is improving as a floor general all the time.

Wall’s speed and athleticism simply aren’t fair. Those traits make him one of the best (if not the best) guard in the league at getting into the paint and kicking the ball out to sharpshooters like Beal, Martell Webster and formerly Ariza. On this basis it’s a shame Washington didn’t try to pick up another premiere three point specialist this off-season, or even take a punt on a free agent like Jimmer Fredette.

Wall has always had one huge knock against him, his shooting. At times last season, older slower veterans knew they had no hope of guarding him on the ball and gave him three and a half feet of room to shoot it over them. While the jump shot is improving, it is still sub standard in an early Rajon Rondo kind of way. If Wall ever fixes the jump shot, he will automatically be the heir apparent as the best overall point guard in the league, but until then never expect him to crack twenty points on a nightly basis.

Last year “The House of Guards” (Second best backcourt nickname of all) averaged 37 points a night, expect them to crack forty together this year with Wall having a go at the assist crown, coming in around ten a night. Either way, with these two in a weakened Eastern Conference, expect the Wizards to be a perennial play-off team for years to come.

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2. Phoenix Suns: Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe & Isaiah Thomas

Before anything else is said, these final two backcourts are extremely fun while also being effective. In Phoenix’s case, that may be due to the fact that before last season, a lot of commentators saw them as a team that was tanking to a bottom three place in the Western Conference, yet was two wins out from making the play-offs. All of that is owed to these two.

Goran Dragic has been ridiculously underrated. I always felt a lot of sympathy for Dragic as he played well in Phoenix on his first stop there (after learning and taking over from a pretty good point guard named Steve Nash) and really showed he belonged in the NBA while in Houston.

Despite this he was bounced around before re-establishing himself as “the man” in the desert before last season began. Dragic made himself into one of the top five point guards in the league last season – tied fourth amongst guards in PPG, fourth in PER and third in estimated wins added, according to BasketballReference.com.

Doing all of that while acting as the Suns’ primary scoring threat (especially when Bledsoe was out injured) on an incredible 50.5 % shooting from the field and 40.8 % from three pointers was unprecedented since the aforementioned Mr. Nash. In fact, he was the only player to play at that clip across the entire league. Dragic is 28 and in his prime, so watching him match up with a much more prepared league will be fascinating this season.

Eric Bledsoe toiled away as a late first round pick in L.A with the Clippers, before eventually Phoenix pulled all that potential away before the start of last season. Trading for Bledsoe baffled the media who presumed that the Suns were simply stock piling assets while tanking the season. Then we met the real Bledsoe. A physical demon, Bledsoe was released from the burden of learning to run a team by the presence of Dragic and just ran rough shot over two-guards across the association before going down with injury.

Brutally strong and lightening fast in the open floor, Bledsoe was let rampage by new coach Jeff Hornacek’s quick game plan where the Suns ran the court at speed, only slowing down for Dragic’s expert pick and rolls where the opposition had to pick their poison between the two headed back court beast.

Bled is one of those players you wish you could see race the likes of John Wall and LeBron over 100 meters as they are simply frightening in the open floor. Combine his relentless engine with his ability as probably the best on-ball defensive guard in the league, picking up players 94 feet up the court and you have a deadly mix. Dragic is no slouch in this regard either, probably propelling the Suns duo a bit higher up this list.

In addition, this summer saw the Suns adding Isaiah Thomas as their sixth man offensive sparkplug. In Sacramento with the Kings, Thomas held the ball up in the offense playing a lot of pick and roll and isolations. Defensively a liability at his diminutive size, it will be interesting to see if Hornacek integrates Thomas in with Dragic and Bledsoe in a tiny but offensively deadly small ball line-up. More than likely he is an insurance policy for Bledsoe’s chequered injury history, but will ensure that opposing guards get no chance to rest up for the return of the starting two.

The potential with a healthy Bledsoe is devastating. Sadly all of this was nearly destroyed as the Phoenix front office nearly mucked up Bledsoe’s extension, but eventually matched the Minnasota Timberwolves five year, 70 million dollar offer sheet to keep their budding superstar.

Unlike other teams on this list, the Suns have nothing beyond their starring backcourt, which further highlights how good they were last year. For Dragic to lead the Suns to as many wins as Lowry and the Raptors (48 – and good for tied third in the Eastern Conference) and more than Wall and the Wizards playing more games in the resoundingly more difficult Western Conference is remarkable and should continue as the feel good story of 2014.

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1. Golden State Warriors: Steph Curry & Klay Thompson

Its the SPLASH BROTHERS! The league’s top shooting backcourt this year, and arguably in the history of the game, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson lead one of the league’s top offenses with precise shooting and playmaking abilities. The Warriors resisted the temptation to complete the trade for Kevin Love, a top six player in the entire league as it would have split apart Curry and Thompson. Despite Love’s awesome numbers, that seems like being the right decision.

Curry is the NBA’s best shooter because, ala Dirk Nowitzki, conventional defence cannot hold him. Curry has exceptional handles that get him anywhere he wants on the court and shoot from anywhere he likes. Incredibly, he makes 44 % of his shots off the dribble (as Kobe found out the hard way), leading the league comfortably.

Already, Curry is trumping Reggie Miller and co. as one of the greatest high volume shooters ever, making 905 three pointers in his brief career in the league, shooting over 44 % to date. As far as playmaking goes, Curry averaged a career high 8.8 assists a year ago, many of those to his sharpshooting colleague Thompson. At 26, Curry is one of the most polarising offensive talents the league has ever met.

He does have a serious flaw though – Curry is a poor on-ball defender. Thompson is in the conversation as one of the NBA’s best two guards, definitely in the top three when it comes to defence. This shields Curry as the 6’7 Thompson covers the league’s toughest match-up spot – point guard.

On a nightly basis, the 24 year old can cover the Western Conference best like Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Damien Lillard and Goran Dragic. In taking this load off Curry, he saves the energy of his point guard and also led a previously poor defensive team to one of the top three last season, league wide.

Thompson, who is shooting an absurd 48 % on over seven three-point attempts per game, is far-and-away the best catch-and-shoot player in the league. He leads the league with 10 points off of catch-and-shoot opportunities per game, is shooting 47 % on eight catch-and-shoot attempts per, and, probably the most impressive stat, is converting 49 % of his six catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game.

He did all this while making the most three point shots (545) of any player in history in their first three seasons in the league. After a great FIBA World Cup, Thompson is only going improve at the other facets of the game as he continues to learn from the veterans around him.

What’s astounding about the Curry/Thompson backcourt is how each player thrives at their own game; Curry relying on his pull-up jumper and dribbling, Thompson on his catch-and-shoot jumper. It makes the two impossible to defend, and it makes it only more difficult when you also have to worry about Andre Iguodala and David Lee in the same starting line-up.

Combining to average nearly 44 points and nearly seven three-pointers per game, Curry and Thompson represent the league’s top backcourt, solely because of how devastating they can become at any moment, as probably the last two players in the league you want to leave open.

One could compare these two as the equivalent of playing a video game where the difficulty is set on amateur, the more crazy the shot you take, the more likely it will go in. Here’s the scary thing for the NBA, neither has hit their prime yet and if Steph’s glass ankles refrain from returning – this will be the best NBA backcourt for another five years.

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So there are the rankings; do you agree, disagree or have a comment? Tweet @GarbhM to let me know!

Garbh Madigan, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team. If you would like to join the team, drop us an email at write@punditarena.com.