This week, the good folks here at Basketball Insiders are embarking on the unenviable task of ranking the top-10 NBA players at each position.
First up, we tackle the point guards.
Such rankings inevitably generate much debate, so please let your own opinion be heard in the comments section below.
1. Stephen Curry – Golden State Warriors:
Yes, we know the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals last June. Yes, Curry struggled in the postseason (mightily at times) and got outplayed by Kyrie Irving on the game’s biggest stage. Despite that bad taste left in the mouths of NBA fans, let’s please not forget Curry is the reigning back-to-back MVP (as well as the first unanimous MVP in history) and authored one of the most impressive offensive seasons in NBA history in 2015-16. Per NBA.com, he became the first guard to average at least 30 points while shooting 50 percent or better from the floor since Michael Jordan in 1991-92. Curry also led the league in steals (2.14), becoming the first player to lead the league in both scoring and steals since Allen Iverson in 2001-02, to go with 6.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds in 34.2 minutes. Curry hit a three-pointer in each of the 79 games he played in 2015-16, setting an NBA record by hitting at least one three in 152-straight regular-season contests. He obliterated his record for most three-pointers a single season with 402. Also, Curry knocked down at least 10 three-pointers four times during the season – a feat no other player has accomplished more than three times in their entire career. Curry also led the league in player efficiency rating (31.56), true shooting percentage (.669) and offensive rating (116.7), and posted more games with at least 30 points (40), 40 points (13) and 50 points (3) than any player in the league. So, yes, although Steph was “relatively” disappointing in the 2016 postseason, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s the best shooter in NBA history.
2. Russell Westbrook – Oklahoma City Thunder:
I had a tough time placing Westbrook ahead of Chris Paul, but I think Russ finally overtook CP3 on the point guard pantheon last season. The amazingly aggressive Westbrook was unstoppable at times last year. He finished the regular season averaging 23.5 points, 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds. Westbrook joined Oscar Robertson as the only other player in NBA history to average 23+ points, 10+ assists and 7+ rebounds. The most impressive aspects of his game are his incredible versatility and ability to stuff the stat sheet, just like the Big O. During the 2015-16 season, Westbrook recorded 18 triple-doubles, which equals the most in the NBA since Magic Johnson during the 1981-82 season. During the month of March, Westbrook posted seven triple-doubles to become the first player since Michael Jordan (in April of 1989) to register seven triple-doubles in a single month. With Kevin Durant now in Golden State, there’s a very good chance he flirts with a triple-double on a nightly basis, and threatens to become the just the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for the entire season.
3. Chris Paul – Los Angeles Clippers:
Currently 31 years old, Paul is still undoubtedly one of the best and most valuable players in the NBA. Over the second half of last season, he averaged 20.1 points and 11 assists per game. Per NBA.com, Paul’s player efficiency rating in that span (29.5) ranked third in the NBA behind only Stephen Curry (30.3) and LeBron James (30). While not as quick or explosive as he once was, CP3 still finds ways to punish and destroy defenses. Like many great players, Paul’s value can be highlighted by his team’s record with him versus when they are forced to play without him. Since Paul joined the Clippers in 2011, the team has gone 26-24 (.520) without him in the lineup. The Clips are 237-111 (.681) in games in which Paul has played.
4. Damian Lillard – Portland Trailblazers:
Lillard has been remarkably productive since the day he was drafted out of tiny Weber State University. He doesn’t get nearly as much national recognition as many of the other players on this list, but it’s hard to argue that any of the players listed below Lillard have been as consistently productive as him since he set foot on an NBA court. For starters, he’s been extremely durable – having played in 321 out of a possible 328 games in his career. Last season was the first time he missed a single game. As we know, availability is important. Also, he’s averaged at least 19 points, 5.5 assists and three rebounds per game every year of his career. Lillard has also knocked down 828 three-pointers in his NBA career, the most by any player in their first four seasons in NBA history. In 2015-16, Lillard joined Steph Curry as just the second player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, six assists and three treys per contest. Moreover, Lillard has already established himself as an extremely clutch performer. Lillard finished the season ranked third in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring.
5. Kyrie Irving – Cleveland Cavaliers:
If we are basing this ranking strictly on the last series of the season, Irving would be higher on this list. But looking at the big picture, Irving still has a bit more to prove. Nonetheless, as his incredible performance in the NBA Finals exhibited, Irving at his best is as unstoppable and electrifying an offensive player as there is in the NBA. Irving still needs to improve as a facilitator and focus a bit more on the defensive end, but if he can build off the momentum he generated in the 2016 postseason, there is no ceiling to his potential.
Steph Curry: 22.6 ppg (40.3 FG%), 3.7 apg, 0.9 steals, 4.3 TO's
Kyrie Irving: 27.1 ppg (46.8 FG%), 3.9 apg, 2.1 stls, 2.5 TO's
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) June 20, 2016
6. John Wall – Washington Wizards:
Nobody in the NBA is quicker baseline to baseline with the ball in their hands than John Wall. He’s a blur who can get into the paint at will against even the best defenders in the Association. He’s also a terrific passer, as evidenced by his assist totals climbing in four straight seasons, topping off last season at a career-high 10.2 dimes per game. However, he hasn’t yet been able to overcome his most glaring flaw: his broken jumper. Defenses continue to slack off him on the perimeter and dare him to beat them by hoisting up jump shots. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Wall shot just 37 percent from between 10-15 feet from the basket and below 36 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point arc. Overall, his career 45.5 Effective Field Goal percentage is keeping him from becoming an All-NBA caliber player. It’s truly surprising that an athlete with his raw, physical talent and offensive skill has yet to crack the 20-points-per-game plateau in his career. He’s also recorded a PER north of 20 just once, back in 2012-13.
7. Kyle Lowry – Toronto Raptors:
Lowry averaged a career-high 21.2 points, a team-high 6.4 assists and was tied for third in the NBA in steals (2.05) last season. He also shot a career-best 38.8 percent (212-for-547) from three-point range, while ranking fifth in the NBA in three-pointers made. Unlike Wall and Irving, Lowry was named to an All-NBA team (third team). He became just the third player this decade to average at least 21 points, six assists and two steals per game over the course of a full season (Steph Curry and Russ Westbrook are the other two). However, Lowry stumbled badly in the playoffs when he lost confidence in his game and his shot. For his career, he is shooting a ghastly 38.3 percent from the floor in the postseason. It will be interesting to see how Lowry bounces back in 2016-17. Will we see a player more representative of the “regular season Lowry,” or the “postseason Lowry” throughout next season?
8. Mike Conley – Memphis Grizzlies:
I’m guessing Mike Conley won’t lose any sleep being ranked outside the top-seven on this list considering the man just signed for a whopping $153 million – the largest contract in NBA history. Before gaining national exposure for his massive contract, Conley was widely considered one of the league’s more underrated floor generals. He was sidelined late last season by an Achilles injury, but had been remarkably durable throughout his career, playing in at least 85 percent of the Grizzlies’ games in each of the previous six seasons. It is also important to note that Conley has been a winner. He’s captained a Memphis team that has won at least 50 games in three straight seasons.
9. Isaiah Thomas – Boston Celtics:
Thomas is the high-riser on this list, as he wasn’t even in the discussion of top-tier NBA point guards at this point last year. But based on his performance during his breakout 2015-16 campaign, he muscled his way into this elite grouping. Last season, Thomas became just the fourth player since 2005 to average at least 22 points, six assists and two made three-pointers per game over the course of a full NBA season. He also joined Larry Bird and John Havlicek as the only Celtics in franchise history to record at least 1,600 points and 500 assists in a single season. Thomas made his All-Star debut this past season and seems poised to continue shining in Boston.
10. Kemba Walker – Charlotte Hornets:
This last spot may have been the toughest call of all. There were plenty of players who have a case for the 10th spot. However, based on his breakout season in 2015-16, Kemba Walker gets the nod. He set career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks, shooting percentage, three-point shooting percentage and free-throw percentage. Kemba’s play in the clutch was also noteworthy. Per NBA.com, Walker led the NBA in scoring in late and close situations (last two minutes of the final quarter when the game is within four points) last season. Walker, who scored a total of 83 points in such situations, shot 44.7 percent from the field and was 39-43 (90.7 percent) from the free-throw line in crunch time. Since entering the NBA in 2011-12, he ranks sixth in late and close points with 236, trailing only Kevin Durant (309), LeBron James (296), Monta Ellis (286), Chris Paul (277) and James Harden (248).
NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles
Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.
Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.
That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.
Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.
All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.
Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.
The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.
“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”
The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.
Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.
Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.
Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.
After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.
By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.
Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.
“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”
Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.
For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.
While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.
“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”
Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.
From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.
With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.
Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench
David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.
The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.
He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.
“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”
Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.
The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.
Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.
“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”
For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.
In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.
“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”
In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.
“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”
At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).
It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17
Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.
We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.