We heard you like rankings, so to kick off The Ringer’s 2018-19 NBA Preview, we’re devoting the week to evaluating (and slapping a number on) the players, the story lines, and the odds and ends that promise to make the upcoming season one to remember.
The hardest part of ranking NBA players is evaluating them in a vacuum. No player is an island: His value comes from how he fits on his team. His talent is less important than his role. There are guys who look like stars in the right situation and busts in the wrong one. Josh Smith went from being one of the best players on a 50-win team in Atlanta to getting bought out before the age of 30 after a season and a half in Detroit. Players win and lose games as a unit. Which team has the best point guard matters less than which has the best backcourt.
Ranking units is an interesting middle ground between ranking teams and ranking players. To keep things simple, I will rank the best two-man backcourts and frontcourts in each conference. The most common type of lineup in the NBA these days is one point guard, three wings, and one big man, which means positions 2 through 4 are often fluid. A player’s position can change over the course of a game, but who they are playing with will determine what types of players they are guarding, as well as their offensive responsibilities.
Unless their teams meet in the NBA Finals, figuring out how a two-man unit compares with one in the other conference is largely an academic exercise. It’s different within conferences. The best backcourts in the East and West face each other year after year in the playoffs. I’m ranking the East on Monday and will rank the West on Tuesday.
1. Boston Celtics — Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum
The Celtics are the perfect example of how difficult it can be to separate players by position these days. There’s little difference between how they will use Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Jaylen Brown in their projected starting lineup. Boston head coach Brad Stevens will slide them between the 2 and 4 positions over the course of the season. I put Tatum at shooting guard because he has the slightest frame of the three and he’s the best spot-up shooter.
The more important question is how will Kyrie handle playing with so much talent. He spent his first three seasons in the NBA dominating the ball on terrible teams, and the next three in a my-turn, your-turn offense with LeBron James. He had the highest usage rate of his career last year (31.0) before his season-ending knee injury, and that will have to come down with Hayward returning from his injury and Brown and Tatum blossoming in their absence.
The Celtics’ run to the Eastern Conference finals was fueled by an equal-opportunity offense that attacked the weakest link in the defense. They didn’t have a go-to player: Whoever had the matchup advantage got the ball. There would be no way to stop them with a similar approach this season. For that to happen, though, Kyrie would have to change his game. He may not see the need to. He already won a title without giving up the ball, and he can score on any defender.
Tatum will have to sacrifice regardless. Kyrie and Hayward won’t take a back seat to a 20-year-old, no matter what he did as a rookie. Stevens will stagger their minutes so they all get chances to play with the ball in their hands, but there are only so many shots to go around on a team with five potential All-Stars. It’s a problem every coach in the NBA would love to have, but it’s still a problem.
2. Washington Wizards — John Wall and Bradley Beal
Wall and Beal should be better than they are. They are as talented as any backcourt in the NBA, yet they have played six seasons in Washington without winning 50 games or making a conference final. It’s not a matter of fit on the court. Wall is an elite slasher, Beal is an elite shooter, and both have the physical tools to defend at either guard position. They fit together better than when they first came into the league: Wall has added a 3-point shot, while Beal has improved as a playmaker and ball handler.
The question is whether their playoff failures stem more from their personal differences or from playing on a poorly run franchise. There’s seemingly nothing that Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld, who has been in charge since 2003, can do to lose his job. His last two head-coaching hires (Randy Wittman and Scott Brooks) have not been particularly impressive, and his bench is annually among the worst in the NBA. It didn’t take a genius to draft Wall and Beal. The former was the no. 1 overall pick in 2010. The latter was the no. 3 overall pick in 2012.
Washington would likely try to move Wall if it decided to break up its backcourt. Not only were the Wizards successful without him last season, he’s a 28-year-old who relies on athleticism and will begin a mammoth four-year, $170 million extension next season. The problem is that the rest of the NBA knows this, too, so it will be hard to get anything close to equal value for him. Either way, if the Wizards decide to trade their All-Star point guard, a different GM should take him.
3. Philadelphia 76ers — Ben Simmons and JJ Redick
The 76ers are a difficult team to classify since their primary ball handler (Simmons) is 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds and can match up with all five positions on defense. His ability to run the offense at his size allows Philadelphia to start an unconventional lineup with Redick (6-foot-4 and 200 pounds) as the smallest player, and Robert Covington (6-foot-9 and 225 pounds) defending opposing point guards. That lineup, with Dario Saric and Joel Embiid up front, had a net rating of plus-21.4 in 600 minutes last season.
The holes on their team were exposed in the playoffs. The Celtics walled off the paint and dared Simmons to shoot, and they ruthlessly attacked Redick on defense. Changing personnel might be the only way to fix those issues. Simmons is a terrible shooter who refuses to even attempt 3s, while Redick is a 34-year-old without elite size or athleticism. He struggled in the playoffs during his time with the Clippers, too.
Philadelphia needs Markelle Fultz, the no. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, to find himself. The player Fultz was in college (an elite playmaker and 3-point shooter with the physical tools to guard all three perimeter positions) would fill every hole in their lineup. The great unknown, after Fultz had one of the most bizarre rookie seasons in NBA history, is whether that player even exists anymore. The 76ers hope he’s rediscovered his shooting stroke after working with celebrity trainer Drew Hanlen this summer.
4. Indiana Pacers — Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo
Oladipo turned himself into an All-Star in his first season in Indiana, averaging 23.1 points on 47.7 percent shooting, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.4 steals a game. He was even better in Game 1 of the first-round series against Cleveland, with 32 points on 11-of-19 shooting. The next step for the Pacers is finding an answer to the adjustment the Cavs made to slow him down. He averaged only 16.7 points on 38.9 percent shooting over the next six games.
Cleveland trapped and double-teamed Oladipo every time he came off a screen, daring his teammates to beat them. They couldn’t do it. Collison complemented Oladipo well in the regular season, but he couldn’t raise his game when it mattered. He’s an NBA vet entering his 10th season who turned himself into an elite 3-point shooter last season (46.8 percent from 3 on 3.0 attempts per game), but his lack of size (6 feet and 175 pounds) makes it easy to game-plan against him in the playoffs. It’s the same story with Cory Joseph, who alternated with Collison and sometimes closed games, and Aaron Holiday, a 6-foot-1 point guard they took with the no. 23 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Oladipo’s skill set gives Indiana more lineup flexibility than it seems to realize. He doesn’t need to close games next to a traditional point guard. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he can defend either backcourt position and create offense for his teammates out of the pick-and-roll. One lineup that Pacers head coach Nate McMillan could try is a super-sized backcourt of Oladipo and Tyreke Evans, a 6-foot-6 scoring guard they signed in free agency. Evans is a worse defender than Collison and Joseph, but he could ease some of Oladipo’s burden on offense.
5. Toronto Raptors — Kyle Lowry and Danny Green
The Raptors broke up the backcourt of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in the wake of yet another postseason collapse. The two All-Star guards were best friends, but something had to change after Toronto lost 10 consecutive playoff games to the Cavs. The Raps rolled the dice by sending DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-rounder to San Antonio for Green and Kawhi Leonard, even with the risk of Kawhi leaving in free agency next summer.
Green, a prototypical 3-and-D wing, will likely open the season starting next to Lowry and Kawhi. The Spurs never gave Green a chance to expand his game, and they seemingly lost confidence in him by the end of his time there. The 31-year-old will get a fresh start under new Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, although he will have a lot of competition for minutes from Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and Norman Powell.
Even Lowry might not be safe. He was outplayed at times last season by second-year guard Fred VanVleet, whom Toronto signed to a two-year, $18 million contract. VanVleet often closed games next to Lowry, but Nurse could put more length and athleticism around the team’s young point guard in bigger lineups this season. Any rotation decision is possible come playoff time. The Raptors have one of the deepest rosters in the NBA, and they have to do everything in their power to impress Kawhi.
6. Charlotte Hornets — Kemba Walker and Nic Batum
Walker made his second All-Star team last season, but his teammates took a step back. Batum was one of the biggest culprits. He’s only 29, but his career has been in decline for years—his massive five-year, $120 million contract in 2016 was a serious misstep by Charlotte. New Hornets head coach James Borrego may have been trying to light a fire under Batum by saying that Walker is the only player guaranteed a starting spot before training camp.
Plan A is a back-to-the-future lineup (Walker, Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, and Cody Zeller) that played only 18 minutes together last season after starting on a playoff team the season before. Other than the newly (re)acquired Bismack Biyombo, those are the five highest-paid players in Charlotte, and all five probably expect to start. However, their net rating two seasons ago (plus-6.0 in 783 minutes) wasn’t special, and they may not have enough speed and playmaking to survive in a smaller and faster league.
Batum said he wants to play at the 3, and moving a player up the position spectrum can help him compensate for declining athleticism. The Hornets have options at the 2: Jeremy Lamb, 2017 no. 11 overall pick Malik Monk, and 2018 no. 12 pick Miles Bridges. All have something to prove. Lamb has never been a starter in six seasons in the NBA, although he may have some untapped potential. Monk’s poor defense kept him glued to the bench as a rookie. Bridges needs to show he can be a consistent shooter behind the deeper NBA 3-point line after going 6-of-30 (20 percent) from 3 in summer league.
7. Milwaukee Bucks — Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon
Like Nurse, new Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer has a lot of moving parts to figure out in his rotation. He will likely start games with Bledsoe and Tony Snell in the backcourt and use Brogdon as the sixth man, but Brogdon could still end up finishing games. The Rookie of the Year in 2017, he’s a combo guard who can play at either position on both ends of the floor. He replaced Snell, a 3-and-D wing who doesn’t have much feel for the game, in the starting lineup toward the end of the Bucks’ first-round series with Boston.
Bledsoe was just as bad as Snell in the playoffs. After an excellent regular season, in which he averaged 17.8 points on 47.6 percent shooting and 5.1 assists per game, he was humiliated in his one-on-one matchup against Terry Rozier. This is an important season for him. Bledsoe is a 28-year-old playing for a new contract, and his game may not age well into his 30s. If he falls out of favor in Milwaukee, he may not get another chance to start on a good team.
Budenholzer will have a lot of options in the backcourt if his starters can’t get it done. Giannis Antetokounmpo can be a primary ball handler, so almost any combination of perimeter players could work around him. Young wings like Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, and 2018 no. 17 pick Donte DiVincenzo could all get chances to close games next to him. With the clock ticking on Giannis’s free agency, Budenholzer may be forced to start thinking outside the box.
8. Miami Heat — Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters
The Heat are a team with the wrong kind of flexibility. They have a lot of lineups to choose from, but none are particularly appealing. Dragic and Waiters started 30 games last season before Waiters went down with a season-ending ankle injury. Tyler Johnson took over at shooting guard, but he lost playing time to Dwyane Wade after Miami reacquired the franchise icon at the trade deadline. Wade announced Sunday that he would return for one final season, but it’s unclear how much he has left in the tank.
Dragic, who made the first All-Star Game of his career last season, is the only sure thing, and he’s a 32-year-old whose game is built on speed and shiftiness. He and Waiters had success sharing lead-guard responsibilities two seasons ago, but they don’t offer much size or defensive versatility. Another option is to move Josh Richardson to the 2 and start Justise Winslow at the 3, but that lineup may not have enough shooting. Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra will have to keep a lot of balls in the air for his team to stay in the playoff hunt.
9. Detroit Pistons — Reggie Jackson and Reggie Bullock
Jackson picked the perfect time (the summer of 2016) to sign a five-year, $80 million contract. He hasn’t been healthy since, playing in only 97 games over the past two seasons. Jackson was a shell of himself while recovering from knee surgery two seasons ago, and he was hobbled by a severely sprained ankle last season. The Pistons didn’t have enough talent to survive without their point guard, and it cost president and GM Stan Van Gundy his job.
Jackson isn’t good enough to be an effective starter if he isn’t 100 percent. He’s a streaky shooter and average passer who needs every edge in athleticism he can get. Nor will he get much offensive help in the backcourt from Bullock, a 3-point specialist who rarely creates his own shot. If Luke Kennard, the no. 12 overall pick in last year’s draft, can hold up on defense, he could push Bullock for playing time.
10. Brooklyn Nets — D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe
This is a make-or-break campaign for Russell, the no. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft. He’s eligible for an extension on his rookie contract, but the Nets won’t break the bank for him after a knee injury limited him to 48 games last season. Talent has never been the issue for Russell, a 6-foot-5 guard with deep shooting range and the ability to create shots for himself and others in the pick-and-roll. However, if the 22-year-old can’t become a better decision-maker, he could lose playing time to Spencer Dinwiddie and Shabazz Napier.
Crabbe has a lot to prove as well. He’s still trying to live up to the four-year, $75 million contract he signed in the summer of 2016, and he will be pushed for minutes on the wing by Caris LeVert and Joe Harris. The Nets have a lot of interesting young players on their roster, but Russell is the closest thing to a franchise player. If he doesn’t take a step forward, they may look to tank now that they are finally done paying their draft debts to the Celtics.
11. Chicago Bulls — Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine
There are some striking similarities between the backcourts in Brooklyn and Chicago. Dunn, like Russell, is a highly drafted point guard looking to prove himself on his second NBA team. LaVine, like Crabbe, is a shooting guard on his second team looking to prove he is worth his eye-popping contract. The difference is the Bulls don’t have nearly as many options behind Dunn and LaVine.
Chicago head coach Fred Hoiberg needs to create chemistry between his two guards, who had a net rating of minus-19.1 in 308 minutes together last season. Both Dunn and LaVine are more comfortable with the ball in their hands, but neither has shown he can be the primary option for a good NBA offense. Their issues could be compounded by the presence of free-agent acquisition Jabari Parker at the 3, another player who has never been shy about getting shots up.
12. Orlando Magic — D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier
The Magic have talent on the wing with Fournier, Jonathon Simmons, and Terrence Ross. Fournier, the best offensive player of the bunch, averaged 17.8 points on 45.9 percent shooting and 2.9 assists a game last season, while Simmons and Ross both played major roles on elite teams before coming to Orlando. The problem is they are starting a career backup (Augustin) at point and may have to play Aaron Gordon out of position at the 3 due to a logjam up front.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers — Collin Sexton and J.R. Smith
George Hill may get the nod at point guard on opening night, but it’s hard to see him holding off Sexton, the no. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft, for long. Cleveland has quality players it can put around Sexton, but it needs him to be more of a playmaker than he was in college. The Cavs may end up pairing Sexton with Hill just for the sake of consistency. It’s hard to know what they will get from Smith, who barely held onto a starting spot last season despite receiving a steady diet of wide-open looks playing next to LeBron James.
14. Atlanta Hawks — Trae Young and Kent Bazemore
There will be a lot of turnover over the course of the season among the backcourts at the bottom of the East. Atlanta, like Cleveland, has an established veteran (Jeremy Lin) at point, but he’s just keeping the seat warm for the point guard (Trae Young) whom they acquired in the draft lottery. Young will benefit from playing next to Lin, but it’s hard to see the Hawks taking Bazemore, one of their only good defenders, out of the starting lineup. This team is in full-on tank mode, so both Lin and Bazemore could be gone by the trade deadline.
15. New York Knicks — Trey Burke and Frank Ntilikina
Ntilikina, like Sexton and Young, may start the season on the bench, but the Knicks need to give him as much playing time as he can handle. The no. 8 overall pick in last year’s draft, Ntilikina has the size (6-foot-5 and 190 pounds) and athleticism to defend either guard position. He’s a smart player with a good feel for the game, but he may not have the burst to be a primary ball handler in the NBA. If Ntilikina plays at the 2, Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay—two former lottery picks looking to resurrect their careers in New York—will compete at point guard. If he plays at the 1, it would open minutes for two veterans (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee) at shooting guard.