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).
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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