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Shoutout to the NBA‘s best shooting guards this season. Your figurative, social distancing-friendly hugs are en route.
But first, if you haven’t binge-read the other installments of our NBA 100 series, be sure to check out or bookmark them now:
Players who haven’t logged at least 500 minutes this season are not eligible for inclusion. Sample size isn’t everything, but we’re evaluating players based on what’s happened in 2019-20 alone, prior to the Disney World bubble. Victor Oladipo and Klay Thompson will have to wait until the 2020-21 preseason to receive their NBA 100 gold stars.
Tethering players to specific positions has never been less of an exact science as the league continues to embrace non-traditional lineups. Possession data from Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference will be used to remove much of the guesswork.
Invariably, though, fuzzier instances will demand judgement calls. These verdicts will be rendered after considering defensive matchup data, lineup deployment and consensus perception. This is the process by which Paul George ended up among the 2s even though Cleaning the Glass identifies him as a 3 while Basketball Reference lists him as a 4.
On to the rankings!
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15. Danny Green, Los Angeles Lakers
Though he hasn’t been quite the impact juggernaut he was in 2018-19 when the Toronto Raptors’ net rating was 17.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, Danny Green has still been a clear positive for the Los Angeles Lakers.
And of course, that impact once again comes from far more than scoring. Among the 147 players in NBA history with a 2.0-plus box plus/minus, Green is 136th in points per possession.
In 2019-20, he’s done all the same things that have carried that value throughout his career. He spreads the floor, hits threes at an above-average rate and is capable of bothering the top perimeter option from about any opponent.
14. Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas Mavericks
Hardaway isn’t the only reason for that difference, but an elite floor-spacer, which is exactly what his 40.7 three-point percentage says he is this season, is what Dallas should surround Luka with.
All year, when Luka has kicked it out or around the perimeter, Hardaway has been keyed in and ready to cast off. He’s fifth in total catch-and-shoot points and has a 63.7 effective field-goal percentage on those shots.
13. Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic
For a team that has a bottom-10 offense, Evan Fournier has been a life preserver. He and Nikola Vucevic are the only Orlando Magic players with above-average offensive box plus/minuses. He’s second on the team in scoring (18.8) and first in threes per game (2.7).
And Fournier isn’t just a catch-and-shoot option, either. He’s done plenty of damage off the dribble. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Chris Paul are the only players in the league who have matched or exceeded his field-goal attempts (352) and effective field-goal percentage (50.6) on pull-up attempts this season.
12. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
Prior to this season, Stephen Curry (four times) and Steve Novak were the only players in league history with seasons in which they matched or exceeded Buddy Hield’s 2019-20 marks for threes per 75 possessions (4.4) and three-point percentage (39.5).
Even in today’s three-happy game, that kind of volume and efficiency generally isn’t found in the same player. Hield may be making a habit of it.
On a roster as young as the Sacramento Kings’, Hield has been a steady source of offense, particularly from behind the arc. The next step is getting to the line a bit more. But in the meantime, his shooting out of any situation makes him a dangerous weapon.
11. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Few players embody the argument for advanced stats better than Marcus Smart. For the fifth time in six NBA seasons, he’s posting a below-average effective field-goal percentage. He’s putting up a career high in scoring, but 13.5 isn’t a number that leaps off the screen. Across the board, his basic numbers look relatively modest.
But when you watch the Boston Celtics play, it’s abundantly clear that Smart is one of those “does all the little things” guys. He can reliably guard four positions (sometimes five, depending on the opponent). He never takes a play off. He makes smart reads as a playmaker. And he doesn’t demand a ton of touches on offense.
That’s all been true in 2019-20. Boston’s net rating is 0.5 points per 100 possessions better with Smart on the floor.
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Zach LaVine’s place relative to the rest of the league remains in flux. Someone who clears 25 points per game while nailing nearly 50 percent of his twos and 38 percent of his threes is clearly good, but the degree to which he can impact winning isn’t yet known.
Billing him as an empty-calories scorer is more than a touch too bold. LaVine’s numbers are not solely the offshoot of unchecked volume. He has meaningful layers to his game.
Anyone who can reliably find nylon on off-the-bounce threes is an asset, and LaVine has drilled 36.4 percent of his pull-up triples on top-15 volume. Junky twos aren’t as prevalent in his offensive armory anymore, and he has appreciably increased his point-blank frequency over the past two seasons.
Figuring out whether LaVine’s production elevates those around him is where things get tricky. He is fine as a complementary playmaker but overstretched as anything more. And his off-the-bounce triples, while impressive, often seem less necessary and more the result of over-dribbling.
This wouldn’t matter if the Chicago Bulls were winning, or if LaVine guaranteed an average offense. They’re not, and he doesn’t.
Chicago scores nearly four points more per 100 possessions with him on the court (80th percentile), but that jump is still only good for an offensive rating in the 28th percentile. LaVine isn’t Devin Booker or Trae Young, two lifelines on losing teams who redefine their offense’s ceiling. He’s more of a floor-preserver—the kind of player who’d be a lot better off as the Bulls’ No. 2.
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CJ McCollum leaves a lot to be desired when viewing his game through the lens of conventional stardom.
He doesn’t get to the rim or foul line at a high clip and is a coin-toss finisher when he does attack the basket. He has great chemistry with bigs out of the pick-and-roll, can spot shooters while going downhill and boasts great ball control but is overtaxed as the primary setup man.
The Portland Trail Blazers offense when he plays without Damian Lillard has only ranked higher than the 38th percentile once over the past five seasons (2015-16).
By those measures, McCollum could be overrated, now more so than ever after he signed a three-year, $100 million extension over the summer. But his standing is only compromised insofar as you’re still expecting him to be someone else.
Portland isn’t paying him to be a situational No. 1. He is meant to be the team’s No. 2 through and through, a certified buckets-getter who can moonlight as a playmaker but earns his keep by providing cornerstone offense as Lillard’s second in command.
McCollum has seldom failed to hold up his end of this bargain. He is one of the smoothest scorers alive. It’d be nice if he could swish more off-the-dribble threes, but he doesn’t need to lean on outside volume when he wields an automatic in-between game. He is shooting 47 percent from mid-range overall (89th percentile) and keeps defenses guessing with a mix of deadly accurate floaters (45.7 percent) and stop-and-pop twos (50.0 percent).
What separates McCollum from, say, Zach LaVine isn’t just a matter of opportunity. He’s in the ideal role for his skill set, but he’s also shown everything he does translates to the playoff pressure cooker. He can still get to his spots in cramped spaces and doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for his tough-shot making.
That he also collects his 20-plus points per game without significantly eating into the usage of those around him—he’s downing 47.1 percent of his catch-and-fire threes—is very on-brand. He’s made a career out of effectively straddling the line between star and complement.
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Struggling through consecutive postseasons did little to slow Donovan Mitchell’s hype train. Anyone would be overburdened as his team’s sole from-scratch scorer. Every star must have a viable No. 2. The Utah Jazz needed to get Mitchell his.
And then they did. Sort of.
The Mike Conley acquisition hasn’t panned out, but Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson adequately stock Utah’s roster with shot-makers, even if they’re not letter-of-the-law sidekicks. The offense should be more equipped to handle the postseason crucible because of them, albeit less so following Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury. The idea of Conley can still be an asset, too.
But Mitchell’s numbers aren’t yet reflective of the Jazz’s sturdier offensive depth. Though his scoring is almost identical to last season’s (25.4 points per 36 minutes) and coming on better efficiency, his true shooting percentage (56.0) remains below the league average (56.4). Long twos are, somehow, an even bigger part of his game, and they’re coming at the expense of his volume around the rim.
Taking fewer shots at the basket has cut into Mitchell’s foul-line trips, and he wasn’t an especially frequent customer at the charity stripe in the first place. Among the 40 players with a usage rate of 25 or higher, his free-throw-attempt rate ranks 33rd.
Keeping his three-point clip above 36 percent is a win, but only a minor one. He’s still not knocking down deep balls off the dribble; he’s converting just 31.6 percent of his pull-up triples.
Age and role ensure Mitchell will remain the Jazz’s most important building block. That’s different from their most valuable player. Rudy Gobert still holds that honor, and Mitchell hasn’t made enough of a jump to suggest that’s about to change.
Utah is getting slaughtered whenever he plays without the Stifle Tower while posting a crummy offensive rating. This doesn’t mean Mitchell is bad. He’s not. It does mean he has a long way to go before the Jazz can comfortably declare him the face of the future.
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All the tricks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander flashed as a rookie have proved to be but a prelude. He is no longer a young prospect ahead of schedule. He’s one of the NBA’s most underrated scorers.
Gilgeous-Alexander has made great use of the extra license the Oklahoma City Thunder have bestowed upon him. His three-point clip is down, but he’s stayed above 35 percent while creating more of his own opportunities. Under 10 percent of his made treys came without assists last year. That number has soared up to over 43 percent this season.
Exchanging looks at the rim for longer twos is often frowned upon, but the in-between game suits Gilgeous-Alexander. He’s knocking down 45.0 percent of his mid-range jumpers (83rd percentile) and splashing in 45.9 percent of his floaters.
Endorsing his shot distribution is even easier when it comes with a rising free-throw-attempt rate. He has added more changes in pace and in-and-out dribbles to his repository and is much better at finishing through contact from outside the restricted area.
Others will be lower on Gilgeous-Alexander until he brings more oomph as a playmaker. His opportunity is finite beside both Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder, but he continues to look more like a hybrid wing than a combo guard. Oklahoma City’s offense has sputtered whenever he plays without Paul, and he’s tallied just 109 possessions as the official point guard.
As is, though, Gilgeous-Alexander can be the second-best offensive player on a ridiculously good team. And he doesn’t necessarily need to approximate floor-general value when he’s so darn useful at the other end. He can make life hell on both guard spots and even wing-sized whatevers. The Thunder haven’t shied from using him on Ben Simmons- and Brandon Ingram-types.
His All-Star peak isn’t just in play. It feels inevitable.
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Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Somewhat lost amid Jayson Tatum’s climb into superstar territory is the humdinger of a season Jaylen Brown has pieced together. He’s averaging a career-high 20.4 points per game while downing 38.1 percent of his threes and a gaga 55.2 percent of his twos. After three years of hovering in the mid-60s, his free-throw conversion rate sits at 73.6 percent—on a personal-best 4.6 attempts per 36 minutes, no less.
Brown’s progress is palpable enough that he generated some All-Star buzz. His failure to make the cut shouldn’t be spun into anything too profound, but it does nod to a certain lagging. He’s still stereotyped into more of a specialist’s box rather than formal stardom.
Whether that’s unfair is in the eye of the beholder. The Boston Celtics don’t yet know if they can win a title with Brown as their third-best player, and he’ll always pale in comparison to most of his would-be peers on the offensive end. His is a role rooted more in finishing plays than creating them.
Over half of his possessions come as transition or spot-up opportunities, and close to 90 percent of his made threes are assisted. His volume as the pick-and-roll ball-handler has more than doubled from last season, but he doesn’t pass enough for the offense to actually run through him, and his handle can get unglued when he’s tasked with doing more than attacking decongested lanes.
Without a semi-sizable shift in focus, this caps Brown’s apex much like it does for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—in that it’s marginally prohibitive but mostly doesn’t matter because of the heavy lifting he does at the other end.
Boston’s three-wing lineups wouldn’t be so effective without Brown’s defensive bandwidth. He rumbles with power forwards more than Tatum or Gordon Hayward, and only Marcus Smart sees more reps against No. 1 options, according to data from Nylon Calculus’ Krishna Narsu. Brown’s presence on the glass is likewise paramount to the Celtics using the good-but-undersized Daniel Theis so freely at the 5.
Elite three-and-D specialists have fringe-star value. Brown is more than that. He has a broader offensive responsibility than catch-and-shoot connoisseurs, and his combination of volume and efficiency verges on anomalous. Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan, Khris Middleton and Brandon Ingram are the only wings who match his scoring, usage and true shooting percentage.
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
Any lingering urges to loop Devin Booker into the empty-stats brigade need to be stamped out. That stance was always hyperbolic. Youth needs time to marinate, and the Phoenix Suns never put enough NBA talent around him to infer a correlation between him and their downtrodden record.
They still haven’t. The Suns are much better off than they were in 2018-19 when Booker wanted for the most fundamental ball-handling support. But the core he headlines now still isn’t perfectly designed to simplify his role or guarantee palatable proximity to the Western Conference playoff picture.
Adding Ricky Rubio is a start. Booker is no longer Phoenix’s only primary playmaker. But he remains its most influential one. The Suns rank in the 79th percentile of points scored per 100 possessions when Booker is on the floor. That efficiency bottoms out to the 2nd percentile in the minutes Rubio plays without him. (Phoenix’s offense is in the 33rd percentile when Booker runs the show on his own.)
What little relief Booker has received—mainly from Rubio, career-year Kelly Oubre Jr. and Deandre Ayton—looks awfully good on him. His efficiency has been on the come-up for most of his career, and he’s reached yet another new height this season.
Among the 58 non-bigs who have played at least 1,000 minutes and are averaging at least 15 points, Booker’s true shooting percentage ranks fourth, behind Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton and Davis Bertans. He’s on pace to become the 10th player to clear 25 points and five assists per game with a true shooting percentage higher than 61, joining James Harden (six times), LeBron James (six times), Michael Jordan (four times), Stephen Curry (three times), Kevin Durant (three times), Larry Bird (twice), Giannis Antetokounmpo (twice), Isaiah Thomas and Lillard.
Between his continuously improving feel for jump-starting an offense, multilevel scoring and the ability to leverage touch and cutting without the ball, Booker is now, without question, one of the league’s most impactful players.
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Jrue Holiday is the same as ever: damn good and underappreciated.
Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson have all taken turns overshadowing him on offense, which is to be expected. They’re new and shiny, and Holiday has almost always blurred the line between primary option and complement. But his role hasn’t actually changed all that much alongside the New Orleans Pelicans’ most prominent additions.
Sure, his usage is slightly down. And yes, he’s taking the occasional extra standstill jumper. For the most part, though, he remains New Orleans’ offensive engine.
No one on the team runs more pick-and-rolls per game, and rather than ween off his self-creation, he’s steered further into it. He looks more comfortable dancing with the ball in his hands and is churning through an almost identical number of pull-up jumpers compared to last season. More of his made threes are actually going unassisted (44.3 percent, up from 40.7), and he continues to bust out his step-back jumper.
Plenty of scorers shoot higher clips, but Holiday is efficient enough relative to his role. He’s hitting more than 50.0 percent of his two-pointers and within striking distance of league-average accuracy from distance (35.7 percent) while putting up nearly 20 points and seven assists per game.
Demands to drop Holiday further likely don’t properly value his defense. The idea that he’s not as much of a neutralizer is, frankly, a little absurd—like his job description.
Just look at the six players he’s spent the most time guarding: Luka Doncic, LeBron James, CJ McCollum, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Damian Lillard and Devin Booker. I mean, my goodness. Difficult assignments don’t equate to good defense, but Holiday is the exhaustive ball hawk the Pelicans stick on the very best without sending him much help.
Finding another player who bears his burden at both ends is almost impossible. Two-way primary usage, a metric developed by Nylon Calculus’ Krishna Narsu, measures the amount of time a player spends as the No. 1 option on offense while guarding the other team’s No. 1 scorer. Ben Simmons is the only player in the league with a higher two-way workload than Holiday.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Bradley Beal exists in a gray area of superstardom.
Merely having him doesn’t assure playoff contention, which puts him outside the top-15-player conversation. And yet, he’s also an offense unto himself, fully capable of crashing the All-NBA discourse in any given season. Pegging him as anything less than a top-25 player isn’t an option.
And to be clear, no one should want it to be.
The Washington Wizards’ hard-knocks season isn’t on Beal. He’s eclipsing 30 points and six assists per game with an above-average true shooting percentage, all while subsisting on a diet of difficult shots. James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook are the only players tossing up more contested looks, defined as any attempt during which a defender is between two and four feet away.
Granted, even without John Wall in the fold, Beal doesn’t shoulder the same from-scratch burden many of his contemporaries do. Nearly half of his made buckets are coming off assists. But what he avoids in next-level difficulty, he makes up for with sheer volume. He owns the league’s fifth-highest usage rate, trailing only Trae Young, Luka Doncic, James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Attributing his numbers exclusively to that volume undermines their significance. This isn’t a good-to-greatish player stat-padding on a bad-to-terribleish team. The Wizards offense is optimized through his usage. They go from scoring 114 points per 100 possessions with him on the court (81st percentile) to 106.2 with him off (18th percentile)—a wrong-direction swing that typifies his importance to a team with zero first-option alternatives.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Is there a more plug-and-play superstar than Paul George?
Perhaps out of depth as the every-possession No. 1, he has dominated while working off another primary ball-handler in each of the past three seasons. That’s not a given for everyone of his stature.
Better players would struggle when having less granular control over the offense. Paul’s game is made for that balancing act. It is seamless.
Displacing him from the ball gives you one of the league’s most dangerous standstill shooters. He has ranked no lower than the 74th percentile of spot-up efficiency through the last five seasons.
Tasking him with from-scratch creation leaves you with a viable source of offense. George’s 53.2 effective field-goal percentage when shooting out of the pick-and-roll is the 10th-highest among 56 players finishing at least five such possessions per game, and his 38.2 percent success rate on pull-up triples ranks fifth out of everyone firing three or more per game.
George distinguishes himself from players who wear similar hats by virtue of his role allocation. He can spend more time as the de facto No. 1 than most other sidekicks. He is at home swishing jumpers after coming around ball screens, even if his turnover woes out of the pick-and-roll are closer to the rule than the exception.
“Playoff P” is both a laughably lame name for his alter ego and an actual thing (last year’s five-game letdown against Portland notwithstanding).
Don’t bother arguing that George belongs any lower after missing a bunch of time with right shoulder and left hamstring issues. This is his conservative finish. In any normal season, his context-proof offense and All-NBA defense—playing next to Kawhi Leonard hasn’t spared him from pestering the best 1s and 2s—earns top-10-player consideration.
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If watchability debates were a metric for value, James Harden would have no fewer than three unanimous MVP trophies sitting on his mantle.
Opinions of his game don’t actually matter. The aesthetics are open for interpretation. The results are not.
Harden has unlocked an alternative means of sustaining efficient offense. He burns through more isolations than entire teams and has standardized the use of step-back threes. The Houston Rockets don’t even go through the trouble of sending that many ball screens his way anymore. He doesn’t need them. His 1.22 points per isolation possession are the equivalent of a league-best offense on their own.
Sitting through this brazen of an approach can be grating for those with no vested interests in Houston’s well-being.
The possessions aren’t always long—the Rockets are second in average possession time, per Inpredictable—but they can be monotonous and, anecdotally, seem to last forever. His search for three-shot fouls and four-point plays is frustrating, if only because both its success and failure lack a consistent baseline. The way he chases—and exaggerates—contact on drives to the basket is equally infuriating for similar reasons and because of what it does to the pace of play.
Say what you will about the look of it all, that it’s gimmicky or not in the spirit of the game. The Rockets, in their eyes, have spotted a market inefficiency, and they’ve elected to ride it, repeatedly, to title contention. Playoff flameouts open them up to criticism, but jockeying for a top-three regular-season finish in the Western Conference every year is nothing to belittle.
None of it’s possible without Harden. He has broken regular-season defenses, not unlike Stephen Curry, only on the back of harder-to-love extremes. Focusing too much on the pretense of Harden’s invention risks underselling the significance of what he’s doing: scoring like hell, to the tune of 34.4 points per game on unreal efficiency.
For anyone who can’t appreciate that, perhaps they can at least muster affection for his playmaking. Harden has achieved absolute awareness in the half court and throws some of the league’s most mind-meltingly difficult passes.
Because, obviously, scoring like hell isn’t enough.