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NBA Saturday: Who Has The NBA’s Best Starting Backcourt?

Who has the NBA’s best starting backcourt? … NBA may soon reform the Lottery?

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During Media Day, Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards made a bold proclamation that he and teammate John Wall comprised the best backcourt in the NBA. When told about Beal’s claim, Cleveland shooting guard Dion Waiters unequivocally disagreed with Beal.

It’s easy to appreciate Beal’s and Waiter’s confidence, but there are a lot of talented starting backcourts in the NBA today that have a claim to being one of the best starting backcourts in the league heading into the upcoming season. Here, we take a look at some of the best backcourts in the NBA, using last season’s performances as the most significant factor, along with other factors like age, likelihood of improvement, health and overall impact on team success, among others:

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Lowry (age 28). 79 games played. 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 38.0 3P%.
DeMar DeRozan (age 25). 79 games played. 22.7 points, four assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 30.5 3P%.

The Toronto Raptors were one of the surprise teams of last season and were one Paul Pierce blocked shot away from advancing to the second round of the playoffs. A big part of the Raptors’ success came from Lowry’s career best averages in points and assists. Lowry is a physical player that does just about everything well. He can score, shoot from distance, make plays and rebound well for a point guard. There are no real weaknesses in Lowry’s game at this point in his career and he has established himself as one of the better point guards in a league saturated with talented point guards.

Lowry arguably should have been named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, but was snubbed in favor of Joe Johnson. But Lowry’s play on the court earned him a new four-year, $48 million contract with the Raptors, which is a nice payday for one of most overlooked point guards in the league.

DeMar DeRozan is no slouch either. Like Lowry, DeRozan had a career year last season, averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. After the Raptors traded away Rudy Gay, DeRozan became the go-to-scorer for the Raptors, and ultimately finished tenth in the league in points scored per game. But beyond scoring, DeRozan showed significant improvement as a playmaker, jumping his per game assists averages from 2.5 to four last season. However, moving forward DeRozan will need to improve his three-point shooting. DeRozan’s three-point percentage has risen virtually every season, but he still shot just 30.5 percent from range last season. If and when DeRozan starts hitting from distance at or around 35 percent, he will have a valid claim to being the best shooting guard in the NBA.

Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers

Irving (age 22): 71 games played. 20.8 points, 6.1 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 35.8 3P%.
Waiters (age 22): 70 games played. 15.9 points, three assists, 2.8 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 36.8 3P%.

This may not be where Dion Waiters thinks he and Kyrie Irving should be ranked, but it’s still a pretty good ranking for one of the youngest starting backcourts in the league. In fact, Lowry and DeRozan have a strong case for being ranked ahead of the Irving and Waiters based on last season’s performance, especially since they led the Raptors to the playoffs. But this ranking takes into consideration projected improvement for the upcoming season, and Irving and Waiters benefit from being so young, and from the return of LeBron James.

With James, Irving can now dial back his focus on being a scorer, and become more of a traditional playmaker for his teammates. Of course, James will handle the ball and initiate the offense at times as well, but with James and Kevin Love on the roster, Irving has the opportunity to jump his assists average into the Chris Paul, Ty Lawson and John Wall range. That, and with James taking over as the team’s unquestioned leader, Irving will likely be held to a higher standard of defensive effort. If Irving can build off his summer with Team USA, focus more on making plays for others, and become a positive factor defensively, he has a chance to compete for best overall point guard in the league. A lot of things need to go right, but Irving has the talent, and now the teammates, to make the leap.

Waiters stands to gain as much from James as Irving does. Waiters can now focus his game on spreading the court with his three-point shooting and focusing on defense. Waiters may not like taking on more of a 3-and-D type of role, but it’s the role he needs to embrace on what is arguably the most talented team in the league. Knocking down three-pointers, swinging the ball to teammates for better shots and trying to lock down opposing wing players is where Waiters can really help his team. It may not be glamorous, but if Waiters is effective in this role, he will be praised for sacrificing part of his game for the betterment of his team.

Irving and Waiters are not the best backcourt in the league, but with James back in Cleveland, they have a shot to be one of the two or three best moving forward. Whether that happens depends on how willing they are to embrace different roles this upcoming season.

Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns

Dragic (age 28): 76 games played. 20.3 points, 5.9 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 40.8 3P%.
Bledsoe (age 24): 43 games played. 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 35.7 3P%.

For most of the offseason Eric Bledsoe’s contract situation threatened to break up one of the most entertaining, and effective, starting backcourts in the NBA. Fortunately for NBA fans, Bledsoe and the Suns recently agreed to a five-year, $70 million contract.

Dragic had a career year last season under head coach Jeff Hornacek and could be even better this upcoming season if Bledsoe can stay healthy. When Bledsoe injured his knee last season, Dragic took sole control of the team and almost led them to the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. Even though teams were loading up defensively to stop Dragic, he still scored over 20 points a game, was a solid playmaker and shot 40.8 percent from beyond the arc. Dragic may not take another major statistical leap moving forward like he did last season, but with Bledsoe sharing point guard duties, he will have more room to operate against opposing defenses.

As for Bledsoe, he is a freak athlete and has the potential to be one of the best two-way point guards in the league. Bledsoe’s strength, length, and commitment to defense allows Hornacek to run Dragic and Bledsoe together, which is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. Both players can score and make plays for teammates, and both can push the ball in transition effectively. Health is the major issue with Bledsoe, but with a little luck and another season under Hornacek, Bledsoe may be due for a big jump in overall production.

John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Wall (age 24): 82 games played. 19.3 points, 8.8 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 35.1 3P%.
Beal (age 21): 73 games played. 17.1 points, 3.3 assists, 3.7 rebounds, one steal, 40.2 3P%

Waiter’s called Bradley Beal’s claim “nonsense,” but Beal really isn’t too far off.

Last season, John Wall had a standout season. He tied with Ty Lawson for second most assists per game, and significantly improved his three-point shooting (26.7 percent on 45 attempts to 35.1 percent on 308). Wall is another freak athlete who can push the ball in transition better than just about anyone else in the league. His length and athleticism make him a tough a matchup for anyone, and at age 24 he still has room to get much better.

As for Beal, at age 21, he is already one of the best shooting guards in the entire league. He is a knockdown shooter with great size and athleticism for the two guard position and is also a pretty decent playmaker as he averaged 3.3 assists per game last season. Beal’s stats from last season are slightly better than Eric Gordon’s stats when he was 21 years old (16.9 points, three assists, 2.6 rebounds and one steal per game). In his third season, and at age 22, Gordon’s production took a big leap forward. If Beal takes a similar kind of leap, he will challenge Klay Thompson. James Harden and DeMar DeRozan for title of best shooting guard in the league as early as next season.

Also, being one of Charles Barkley’s favorite players in the entire league counts for something, right?

Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, Los Angeles Clippers

Paul (age 29): 62 games played. 19.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals, 36.8 3P%.
Redick (age 30): 35 games played. 15.2 points. 2.2 assists, 2.2 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 39.5 3P%.

Chris Paul is still the best point guard in the league, although Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook may change that this upcoming season. But for now, Paul holds the mantle for being the best playmaker in the league, a good scorer, and committing himself to defense as well. Paul is getting older, and is not the athlete he once was, but no other point guard impacts the game as much as he does.

Anytime you have arguably the best point guard in the league, you likely have one of the best overall backcourts in the league. But J.J. Redick is no scrub himself. In fact, with Redick in the lineup, the Los Angeles Clipper’s league best offense goes from great to elite. Under Rivers, Redick plays Ray Allen’s old role of constantly moving off of screens and knocking down open jump shots. And like Paul, Redick commits himself to defense as well. He may not be a lockdown player, but his effort and attention to team defense makes him a net positive in that regard.

Unfortunately, both Paul and Redick missed significant time last season due to injuries. But with another season under head coach Doc Rivers, and one of the deepest rosters in the league, Paul and Redick project to be one of, if not the best backcourt in the NBA this upcoming season.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

Curry (age 26): 78 games played. 24 points, 8.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 42.4 3P%.
Thompson (age 24): 81 games played. 18.4 points, 2.2 assists, 3.1 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 41.7 3P%.

The Splash Brothers were at risk of being broken apart this offseason as the Golden State Warriors considered moving Klay Thompson to acquire star power forward Kevin Love. Ultimately, the Warriors opted to keep Thompson and move forward with last season’s best backcourt.

Stephen Curry has elevated his game from a top-scorer to all-around superstar. With Curry, three-point shooting has always been his main weapon. Curry knocked down more three-pointers than anyone last season (261) and did so at a blistering 42.4 percentage. But, perhaps even more important than three-point shooting, Curry has made the jump into a legitimate, full-time point guard. In 2012-13, Curry averaged 6.9 assists per game, which increased to 8.5 last season. However, Curry does turnover the ball more than you would hope for from your star point guard. Nevertheless, Curry is a threat from everywhere on the court, and that includes passing the ball now too, not just shooting.

Like Curry, Thompson’s main weapon is his three-point shooting as Thompson made the second most three-pointers in the NBA last season (223). But unlike Curry, Thompson has not become a great playmaker up to this point in his career. But where Thompson lacks playmaking, he makes up for it with defense. When the Warriors need to shut down an opposing wing, Thompson has just as good of a shot as noted defender Andre Iguodala, which is saying something.

Honorable Mentions:

Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews, Portland Trailblazers

Lillard (age 24): 82 games played. 20.7 points, 5.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 39.4 3P%.
Matthews (age 27): 82 games played. 16.4 points, 2.4 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 39.3 3P%.

If Curry and Thompson are the Splash Brothers, then it wouldn’t be too far off to call Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews the Splash Brothers Light. Lillard finished last season with the third most made three-pointers in the league (218), while Matthews finished fifth (201).

Like Curry, Lillard is the star player in the backcourt, but stands to improve defensively. And like Thompson, Matthews takes defensive assignments as seriously as he takes his offensive game.  Lillard and Matthews may have been left off the top-6 here, but figure to be even better this upcoming season and in the discussion as one of the league’s best backcourts again.

Ultimately, it turns out neither Beal nor Waiters was right. While both are part of some of the best backcourts in the league, Curry and Thompson edge out the competition. Lillard and Matthews, like a few other starting backcourts, have a valid claim that they should be included in the top-6, but just barely missed the cut here.

Which team do you think has the NBA’s best backcourt? Let us know in the comments section below!

 Lottery Reform Coming Soon?

Zach Lowe of Grantland reported in July that the NBA is considering reforming its current lottery system to provide less incentive for teams to tank. The push for reform is in direct response to the Philadelphia 76ers who have blatantly tanked the last two seasons under general manager Sam Hinkie.

After it is approved, the proposed reform will go into effect immediately. On Friday, 76ers managing owner Josh Harris spoke to the media about the proposal, acknowledging it could hurt his team in the short term.

“A change that flattens the Lottery system would be a little bit worse for Philadelphia in the short run,” Harris said.

However, Harris believes that the proposed changes will ultimately help his team in the long run.

“But long run, since we expect to be a consistent playoff or deep playoff-caliber team, it’s actually better for us.”

Harris is right about this, especially considering that Philadelphia is a big market that does well in attracting free agents. However, this assessment is only accurate if players like Michael Carter Williams, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric turn out to be as good draft picks.

Some may view this move as punishment for teams that are simply following the league’s rules. But the 76ers have taken the tanking strategy to a level that has angered team executives around the league. Hopefully the proposed changes can effectively deter teams from tanking moving forward. Tanking may be a good strategy for teams, but at its extremes it is harmful to the league.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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