The two guard is the most glamorous position in basketball. You can thank Michael Jordan for that. Every kid of my generation grew up wanting to play the two, rock a sweatband on the left elbow, wear baggy shorts and the number 23, and we all thought we’d grow up to be 6-6. Power players may traditionally determine who’s got the juice, but shooting guards are nearly as important. The very best can create shots anywhere on the floor, and routinely finish games by getting shots in the closing moments. These are normally the very best athletes in the world; graceful, but still powerful… explosive, but still finesse. No one has the same combination of jaw-dropping athleticism and phenomenal ball skills the greatest shooting guards wield.
How did I determine this list? You mean besides on-court performance? The only real problem with swingmen is determining who should be pigeon-holed into the three-spot and the two. The game is evolving and so are positions. But with only a select few players – Tyreke Evans and Stephen Jackson (I considered him a SF) to name a couple – did it really affect my decision.
After reading our lists of the top 10 small forwards, top 10 point guards, top 10 centers and the top 10 power forwards in the game today, you realize how hard it is to put something like this together. Everyone’s an expert and has an opinion of their own, so no matter what combination of 10 NBA players you assemble, even if they’re all All-Stars, you’re bound to leave off a former All-Star or up-and-coming talent.
So with that, here is the capper for our positional rankings: the top 10 shooting guards in the NBA right now:
10. Wesley Matthews
Man, you want to talk about a hard decision? This spot came down to two guys. I went back and forth for a while on this. James Harden. Wesley Matthews. Jason Richardson is fading fast. Jason Terry doesn’t do much anymore outside of hitting jump shots. Tony Allen has really only been killing it at this level for half of a season, and even then he shoots like a drunk kid playing Call of Duty. Lou Williams comes off the bench and is never the focus. So it came down to Matthews and Harden. In the end, I went with the one who starts. Here’s why:
Whereas I think Harden will become the better player as soon as this spring, he still hasn’t put together a total year. People forget the dude was shooting below 40 percent for the first third of last season. He eventually came on, and was a fabulous playmaker during the playoffs. But still, Tony Allen had a monster effect down the stretch for the Grizzlies – I think you gotta bring it for longer than a few months. Matthews is also the better shooter (over 40 percent from the arc last season), and generally considered one of the top five wing defensive players in the game because it’s impossible to post him up.
I never noticed before how close in production these two were. Points per 36 minutes: 17-16, Matthews. Rebounds per 36 minutes: 4-3, Harden. Assists per 36 minutes: 3-2, Harden. Steals per 36 minutes: wash. Matthews shot a little better from the field and was used more often while Harden diversified his game a little more. In the end, I took Matthews partly because I have so much respect for the way he built his own path. I profiled him back in Dime #64 and this is a cat who is one of the most intelligent players in the league, the only one I’ve ever heard of who’s mastered a Tom Crean playbook. Considering those things have hundreds of sets, that says a lot.
Matthews’ opportunities figure to jump again this season without Brandon Roy and possibly Gerald Wallace. Harden, for now, will always have a hard time consistently putting in work simply because he’s the third-best perimeter player on his own team. He’ll still have four-point games. He’ll still have nights where he gets just four or five looks. Matthews affects the game so much with his toughness and energy that even if he is left lonely in the corner at times, you can live with it.
9. Tyreke Evans
Paul Westphal always told me Evans is unique. Don’t define him in a position. Okay Paul, but if we have to choose, he’ll play more often going forward at the two. So for now, he’s no point guard.
Today, we crowned him the best ballhandler in the game. He might not have the greatest in-game handles, considering he’s averaging 3.1 turnovers a game two seasons into his career. But his dribble-drive game is nearly unparalleled. At 6-6, 220, Evans is unstoppable in the lane and if his feet problems are a thing of the past, he could easily average over 20 a night this season.
How much of a factor were those issues with plantar fasciitis last season? I think the numbers tell it all. His rebounding rate dropped to 7.4. His true shooting percentage took a hit as well, dropping from nearly 53 percent to 48. He isolated less often, took more outside shots and was assisted on more of his buckets… all signs that he couldn’t explode or slash inside or finish at the rim. Evans became more of a perimeter player, and honestly, no matter what kind of strides he makes with his jumper, he’ll always be more dangerous slashing to the rim. That’s his game.
The only thing stopping Evans from repeating his freshman year with Sacramento is the presence of more talent. DeMarcus Cousins, Marcus Thornton and Jimmer Fredette all need shots. But with the game on the line, it’ll be one of the game’s best one-on-one creators making the decisions.
8. Ray Allen
It wasn’t long ago we thought Allen’s reign as the game’s best shooter was over. He was coming off a year in Boston where they incredibly made the Finals, but lost partly because Jesus was building a church with all of his Game 7 bricks (3-for-14). Allen shot 36 percent from deep that season, awful for his standards. But last year he was resurrected, shooting the highest three-point percentage of his career.
Allen’s aging gracefully into that Reggie Miller mode and while his overall game is virtually non-existent, that’s not what he makes the bread for. His one purpose wearing the white and green is to run defenses ragged and pop threes. That’s it. Besides perhaps Steve Nash, there’s no one in the league better at the most basic of basketball skills: putting the ball in the hole.
7. Kevin Martin
The stat nerd’s favorite player. On paper, Martin jumps out at you. Here are a few perimeter names who statistically couldn’t keep up with the Rockets’ guard last year: Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Monta Ellis, Eric Gordon, Andre Iguodala, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen. Last season, Martin had a usage rate of almost 30, unheard of for someone who’s never even made an All-Star team.
Because he has such a knack for drawing off-balance foul calls, while hitting more threes last year than he ever before, Martin can afford to shoot 43 percent from the field and still finish fifth among guards in true shooting percentage. His efficiency as a scorer is what gets people talking. He’s like the anti-Brandon Jennings.
But I’m going to base this ranking off the eye test, and my eyes tell me Martin’s an average (at best) defensive player who’s in a system that needs him to score 25 a night. His total floor game is as weak as anyone’s on this list, and while he’s been quietly spectacular as a Rocket, he’s played in only one career playoff series, averaging barely 13 points a game (This was in Sacramento). Big regular season numbers count, but so too should the playoffs. I truly want to rate him above the next guy on this list, but until the Rockets do a little damage in the playoffs, and Martin develops something outside of scoring, I can’t.
6. Joe Johnson
Normally, as a team improves, the goal should be to take less shots and increase your efficiency. The load shouldn’t be as difficult and you should find easier opportunities. Well, JJ has definitely found less shots. Last season, he took 16 a night, his lowest since coming to Atlanta. But he also shot 44 percent and a dreadful 29.7 percent from deep. This is a man who once hit nearly half his threes throughout an entire season with Phoenix. Now, he’s become one of the least efficient stars in the NBA.
His scoring is down to 18 a night and as he turned 30 this summer, the rest of his game is dropping as well. For a player who used to flirt with 20/5/5 lines all the time, Johnson now barely averages four boards a night, and even his assists are the lowest they’ve been in four years.
I think all you need to know about Johnson’s season last year was that he had the same PER (16.4) as J.R. Smith.
A part of me wants to call it a fluke. Johnson’s shooting numbers were so up and down â€“ 38 percent in December, 50 percent in January, 46 percent in February, 40 percent in April â€“ that a fluke could be in the cards. But his game has been slowly deteriorating for the past few years now.
It also doesn’t help your reputation that you’re making over $18 million this season and are a borderline All-Star. We’ll say it again: What the hell is Atlanta going to do by 2015 when a 34-year-old Johnson is making $24.9 million?!
5. Eric Gordon
First of all, Gordon is pathetic as a rebounder (less than three a night in over 37 minutes) and a very average playmaker for someone who handles the ball as much as he does on a team with a finisher like Blake Griffin. At barely 6-3, he’ll forever have trouble defending some of the game’s best wings even if he works his ass off and is built like a bowling ball. But why start with his weaknesses? Because everything else is overwhelmingly positive. Gordon might just be the best under-30 two guard (Wade is turning 30 in less than a month) in the whole league. Both his scoring (22.3 points a night) and defense improved drastically last season to the point that he was finishing opponents off for L.A.
The main reasons why he’s still slightly unknown beyond NBA circles is he missed 26 games last season, and I’m not sure anyone actually watched the Clippers play outside of Griffin’s Sportscenter highlights. Gordon shows up every night, plays both ends, still has a ton of room to grow and by all accounts wants to win and isn’t a massive headcase. A year or two from now, who knows how high on this list he can reach? For now, since he really only has 56 games at this level, I can’t put him ahead of the man next on this list. Yet. By the end of this season, he could be the third-best two guard in the game.
4. Monta Ellis
It’s hard for me to go at Ellis considering he helped anchor my fantasy team last year (Quick note: in a keeper league, would you rather have: Ellis or John Wall? I need answers!), but we need to face facts. Ellis is a little overrated because he doesn’t defend consistently, he’s 11th in usage rate but only 43rd in player efficiency, and his biggest attribute (scoring) has always been magnified because he plays on the revolving-door Warriors. His PER is relatively weak (18.6) for someone considered one of the better players in the league at his position (Lou Williams‘ PER is 18.9 for comparison). If he were traded to a contending team â€“ let’s just say the Spurs since I’m sure this debate will come out off this list â€“ I’m not even sure he’s a full-time starter. If he committed to playing D all the time, which Mark Jackson is hoping he will this season, then things might change. He’s obviously a phenomenal offensive weapon. But in Golden State, his strengths have always been illuminated too brightly.
I’ve said this multiple times, but I’d love to see Ellis on a legit championship team playing a suped-up version of the role Jason Terry plays in Dallas. That’s his destiny. He needs to embrace it.
3. Manu Ginobili
Because of his numbers (17.4 points on 43 percent shooting, 4.9 assists a game), his flopping and the team he currently plays for, Ginobili is constantly overlooked and underrated. He’s the only player in the league to be completely balanced. In Michael Lewis’ great piece a few seasons ago on Shane Battier and the unique affect statistics can have on defense, it wasn’t Kobe or Dwyane Wade who represented the toughest cover to study. It was Ginobili, statistically impossible to predict because he’s so good in so many areas.
Ginobili may be 34 and his PER (21.7) has dropped every season since 2008, but he’s yet to lose his explosiveness. In last year’s first round upset against Memphis, Ginobili was the only Spur who could keep up: 21, four and four through seven games, and that was with only one arm.
The problem is people just don’t like Ginobili. They really don’t. But he gets all the respect in the world from me for one major reason. I always assumed San Antonio would find a way to beat Memphis last year, even if they were the inferior team talent-wise. That was ALL because of Ginobili. Even in that wild Game 5 win that staved off elimination, I was expecting Manu to come through again and again with the miraculous. He didn’t disappoint.
For me, it comes down to this. If you needed a great two guard to go get a championship, and you had an opening at that spot, are you taking Manu or Ellis?
2. Kobe Bryant
With the way Kobe has been reacting to questions so far this season, I’d probably get one of his Raja Bell specials to the temple if we told him he wasn’t the best player anymore at his position. But it’s true. Scoring. D-Wade is better. Rebounding. Wade is much better. Playmaking is even. Shooting… well, Bryant is still a threat out past 25 feet, but Wade is more efficient (true shooting percentage of 58; Bryant’s below 55). Defensively, Wade is better, and despite the All-NBA accolades Bryant continues to snatch, Wade plays defense harder and for longer. Look at the numbers. LeBron and Wade are the base of one of the NBA’s best defenses while Bryant’s Lakers thrive because of the size behind him.
Bryant is still phenomenal for the game’s first 42 minutes, and last year his production actually increased as he was able to work through injuries moreso than in the past. But it was the final six minutes, those clutch moments that used to be where he took his game to another level, that suffered. The dirty little secret about the Lakers’ problems last year was that they couldn’t finish. They lost nearly every close game, and being the team’s unquestioned leader down the stretch, Bryant was unable for most of the season to work his magic. To finish games, you need something extra. I’m nervous Bryant doesn’t have that same gear anymore.
The backlash whenever Bryant gets “dissed” on one of these lists is always swift and hard. No one is saying Wade has had the better career, or that D-Whistle will go down as the better player. Down the line, when they’re both retired, I’m assuming Bryant will be considered top 10, if not top five all time. Wade may make the top 20-25. But right now, Bryant is only second best.
1. Dwyane Wade
Seeing Bean behind anyone on any type of list seems flabbergasting (even on our 10 worst floppers), but this shouldn’t be that hard to digest. I’ve speculated for a few years, and now that he’s about to turn 30, I think I know for sure: Dwyane Wade is one of the most underrated players of all time. There. I said it. It might take a few more championships â€“ and perhaps another Finals MVP â€“ for everyone to figure it out, but it’s still true. His overall career numbers are phenomenal (25.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks a game), and despite owning a suspect jump shot, Wade is one of the league’s best at drawing late-game fouls.
In his prime (2008), he had one of the best individual seasons by any perimeter player ever. His trainers are promising he’s in the best shape of his life, and he’ll need to be going forward. The real question isn’t whether he’s the best two guard in the league right now; It’s more about how long can he keep this up? Wade has had major injury problems in the past, and still relies on a slashing game revolving around his power and explosion. His best weapon outside of 15 feet is probably his pump fake. His jumper outside of 15 feet has improved (up to 33 percent, at one point it was as bad as 20 percent), but that’s more a product of less opportunities.
While his overall numbers and effectiveness have shown they’ll definitely take a hit with LeBron James around (his PER dropped nearly three full points to 25.6 last year), Wade is still the most complete off guard in the league and easily a top five player overall.
Did I miss anyone? Who make up your top 10?
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