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: their value comes from how they fit on their team. Their talent is less important than their role. 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.
Unless their teams meet in the NBA Finals, figuring out how a two-man unit compares to 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. Monday, I went through the East. Tuesday, it’s all about the West.
1. Golden State Warriors — Steph Curry and Klay Thompson
The only competition left for the Splash Brothers is history. If Curry and Thompson aren’t the best backcourt ever already, they’re not far off. Not only have they revolutionized the game with their style of play, they have won three titles in the past four seasons and were a handful of possessions away from a fourth. They’re not likely to slow down anytime soon, either, barring injury. Steph is 30 and Klay is 28, and their games should age well together. No matter what happens with the luxury tax over the next few seasons, there’s no reason to ever break them up.
Steph is a two-time MVP, but Klay is just as important to the Warriors. At 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, he’s a tank with near limitless endurance, allowing him to chase smaller guards around the floor and let Steph rest on defense. He’s also an all-time great shooter who can pour in points while hardly touching the ball. His career high of 60 points came in a game during which he dribbled 11 times. Klay’s ability to play off the ball makes everyone around him better because it gives them more opportunities with it.
Steph is just as deadly shooting off movement, one of the keys to Golden State’s success. Other stars want to play with the Splash Brothers because they give others room to shine. Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala would mutiny if they had to stand in the corner while playing in Houston next to James Harden and Chris Paul, both of whom were in the top 10 in the NBA last season in average time of possession. Steph was no. 29, and Klay was no. 152.
The most telling thing about Golden State is just how appealing it is to players who got a front-row look at them. Iguodala, Durant, and DeMarcus Cousins (although he was watching from the bench in street clothes) all lost to them in the playoffs with their previous teams, and then immediately signed with them the following offseason. They wanted to be on the right side of history. The Warriors are time travelers giving the rest of the league a preview of where the sport is headed. The only way to beat them is to play exactly like them.
2. Houston Rockets — Chris Paul and James Harden
Paul and Harden proved the skeptics wrong in their first season together. They didn’t have any issues sharing the ball or figuring out the pecking order on the team. Harden was the MVP, Paul was the second banana, and both got time to dominate the ball when the other was on the bench. The Rockets rode that formula all the way to the Western Conference finals, before Paul was knocked out with a hamstring injury in the final moments of Game 5.
The biggest concern for Houston is keeping Paul fresh. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni doesn’t like going deep into his bench, but he has to limit Paul’s playing time in the regular season. Last season was proof that home-court advantage doesn’t mean anything if Paul isn’t 100 percent in May and June. He’s an undersized 33-year-old headed into his 14th season. There are only so many miles left on his body, and Houston just signed him to a four-year, $160 million extension. The Rockets can’t burn him out in Year 1.
Houston added three players (Brandon Knight, Michael Carter-Williams, and Carmelo Anthony) in the offseason who can take some offensive pressure off Harden and Paul. The question is whether any of them can be efficient while doing so and be even adequate on defense. Houston might still be one piece away: a playmaking forward who can make the game easier for Harden and Paul by creating easy shots for them. Players like that aren’t easy to find, but none of the guys they brought in this offseason even comes close.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder — Russell Westbrook and Paul George
George gave the Thunder a new lease on life when he signed a four-year, $137 million extension in the offseason. The franchise had spent the past three seasons living in constant fear of a star leaving town. Now that George and Westbrook are locked in for the next three seasons, they can afford to be a little more patient. A good test will be whether they bring Westbrook back slowly after he underwent knee surgery last week. A 29-year-old guard as reliant on athleticism as Westbrook should be handled carefully.
For as polarizing as Westbrook is among NBA fans, the immense shadow he casts in Oklahoma City makes George’s life easier. “Playoff P” couldn’t live up to the nickname he gave himself last season. George went from scoring 36 points on 13-of-20 shooting in Game 1 of the Thunder’s first-round loss to the Jazz to five points on 2-of-16 shooting in Game 6. His struggles would have been all anyone talked about had he stayed with the Pacers. There are few NBA players making as much money as George who face less scrutiny.
Oklahoma City is hoping more chemistry between George and Westbrook in their second season together will turn the team into a legitimate contender. They will have a different mix, both on and off the court, after losing Carmelo Anthony and gaining Dennis Schröder in the offseason. But while adding Schröder would allow Westbrook to play more off the ball, he only compounds their lack of 3-point shooting. It makes more sense to close games with George at the 3 and a shooter like Alex Abrines or Terrance Ferguson at the 2. Neither has proved much in the NBA, but a team spending $65.9 million this season on two perimeter players shouldn’t need much from a third.
4. Utah Jazz — Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell
The roles were reversed when the Jazz knocked the Thunder out of the playoffs last season. Rubio and Mitchell were making their postseason debuts, yet they looked like battle-tested veterans compared with Westbrook and George. Rubio had a triple-double in Game 3 and baited Westbrook into four first-half fouls in Game 4, while Mitchell outplayed George on both ends of the floor, averaging 28.5 points a game on 46.2 percent shooting in the series.
However, for as well as they played against Oklahoma City, the duo still has some long-term issues to figure out. Rubio has to prove that his career-high 3-point shooting last season (35.2 percent on 3.5 attempts per game) wasn’t a fluke. And neither player is above 6-foot-4, which can be an issue against bigger backcourts. The Jazz may have shown their hand by giving Dante Exum a three-year, $33 million extension this offseason. Rubio will be a free agent next summer, and Exum could end up sliding into his place in the starting lineup.
That switch would give Mitchell a lot more offensive responsibility, since Exum is a combo guard rather than a pure point. Improving as a playmaker is the next step for Mitchell after his star-making rookie season. The 22-year-old averaged only 3.7 assists and 2.7 turnovers a game, but he showed flashes of a more well-rounded skill set. He had 11 assists in Game 2 of their second-round series against Houston with Rubio out. While Rubio made Mitchell’s life easier as a rookie, the goal in Utah should be for Mitchell to become the type of player who can make life easier for a 6-foot-6 defensive specialist like Exum.
5. Portland Trail Blazers — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum
No one remembers this after their disastrous first-round sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, but Dame and C.J. reached another level in the regular season. Offense has never been an issue for the two sweet-shooting guards. The difference last season was their defense: The Blazers had a defensive rating of 103.9 in their 1,896 minutes together. They carried Portland to the no. 3 seed in the West, and Lillard made the All-Star Game after missing the cut the previous two seasons, something that made him very mad online.
However, all his complaining about missing All-Star Games seems a bit ridiculous after he was demolished by Jrue Holiday in the first round in April, just like he was by Mike Conley Jr. in 2015. Lillard has a higher profile than Conley and Holiday, neither of whom has been an All-Star in the Western Conference, but that didn’t mean anything in that Pelicans-Blazers series. Holiday averaged 27.8 points a game on 56.8 percent shooting in the series and held Lillard to 18.5 points a game on 35.2 percent shooting.
The way the Blazers fizzled in the playoffs raised serious questions about the long-term fit in their backcourt. It’s hard to win in the playoffs when your two best players are 6-foot-3 and under. Portland has a high floor with Dame and C.J. orchestrating the offense, but it also appears to have a low ceiling. The Blazers are a prime candidate to get blown up if they lose any ground this season in a fiercely competitive conference.
6. San Antonio Spurs — Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan
This backcourt should be one of the most interesting experiments in the NBA. DeRozan is starting over in a new conference, while Murray is coming off a breakout second season. The first order of business is spacing the floor. DeRozan averaged a career-high 3.6 3-point attempts per game last season, but he shot only 31 percent from behind the arc. He’ll have to improve in both categories next to Murray, who took only 34 3s last season. San Antonio has thrived on offense without much 3-point shooting under head coach Gregg Popovich, and he’ll have to dig even deeper into his bag of tricks to keep that up.
Playing with Murray, already one of the best defenders in the league at the age of 22, will allow DeRozan to hide on that end of the floor. At 6-foot-5 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-9.5 wingspan, Murray is an elite athlete who can shut down players at either backcourt position. His length, speed, and tenacity make him the rare young player who meaningfully affects his team’s defense. The Spurs’ defensive rating went from 98.1 with Murray last season (the best among their rotation players) to 105.9 without him (the worst).
It’s a new day in San Antonio without Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The two future Hall of Famers were well past their prime, but they set the tone in the locker room. Now it’s up to DeRozan and Murray to put their fingerprints on the Spurs. It will be their job to make the game easier for young players like Derrick White (no. 29 overall pick in 2017) and Lonnie Walker IV (no. 18 overall pick in 2018), whose shooting ability will be crucial to keeping the team afloat.
7. Denver Nuggets — Jamal Murray and Gary Harris
Getting buckets has never been the issue for Murray and Harris. The former averaged 16.7 points a game on 45.1 percent shooting last season, while the latter averaged 17.5 points a game on 48.5 percent shooting. The Nuggets need them to improve in other areas of their game to get back to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. Playing with Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap means the Denver guards don’t have as much playmaking responsibility as many of their counterparts, so they have to lock in on defense this season.
Denver got smaller at small forward this offseason after trading Wilson Chandler to the Sixers. Will Barton, a much slighter player who re-signed with the team in July, will take his place on the wing. That’ll put even more pressure on Harris, their best perimeter defender. Despite having only average size for a shooting guard (6-foot-4 and 210 pounds), Harris will likely get the most difficult assignment on a nightly basis at the 1 through 3 positions. The Nuggets should score a million points in the regular season, but the Blazers are proof that an explosive backcourt gets you only so far in the playoffs.
8. New Orleans Pelicans — Elfrid Payton and Jrue Holiday
Holiday, one of the most versatile guards in the NBA, had his coming-out party against Lillard in the first round. Sharing a backcourt with Rajon Rondo allowed the 27-year-old to give up some of his playmaking responsibilities and focus on scoring and defense, which made the Pelicans’ decision to replace Rondo with Payton a bit of a head-scratcher. Payton is often compared to Rondo because neither can shoot, but he hasn’t shown the same genius-level basketball IQ on either side of the ball in his four seasons with the Magic and Suns, two perennial bottom-feeders.
Payton is a former lottery pick who is still only 24, so he has time to turn things around. There are some reasons for optimism: He cut his massive dreadlocks, which often obstructed his vision on jump shots, and he has never played with anyone as good as Holiday or Anthony Davis. Nevertheless, it’s a big gamble for the Pelicans. His two backups (Ian Clark and rookie guard Frank Jackson) are score-first combo guards who would need Holiday to run point for them. While Holiday can handle either guard position, the best version of him is at the 2.
9. Memphis Grizzlies — Mike Conley Jr. and Garrett Temple
Much like New Orleans, the Memphis backcourt features an elite guard who will have to pick up the slack for an unproven partner. Temple will likely be competing with Dillon Brooks and Wayne Selden at shooting guard, with MarShon Brooks coming off the bench in the sixth-man role that Tyreke Evans had last season. Conley, one of the best two-way point guards in the NBA, can do just about anything on the court, but he can lift the play of the guy next to him only so much. Young guards like Ben McLemore and Wade Baldwin IV have flamed out with the Grizzlies in recent years.
With Conley and free-agent acquisition Kyle Anderson handling the playmaking duties, Memphis just needs someone at the 2 who can defend and space the floor. Temple, a nine-year NBA veteran, should make fewer mental mistakes than Dillon Brooks (a second-year player) and Selden (third year), but he has never held down a starting spot for multiple seasons. While Temple has the highest floor of the three, he doesn’t have the same ceiling as Brooks and Selden, both of whom were big-time scorers in college.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves — Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins
Teague and Wiggins have the talent to be much higher on this list. Teague is a former All-Star still in the prime of his career, while Wiggins was the no. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. The problem is that both are ball-dominant players, streaky outside shooters, and inconsistent (at best) defenders, which makes them terrible fits next to Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. Minnesota was less than the sum of its parts last season, and the inability of Teague and Wiggins to fit into smaller offensive roles was a big reason.
Butler, who will likely be a free agent in the offseason, will reportedly meet with Wolves head coach and president Tom Thibodeau on Tuesday to discuss his future. While it seems unlikely that Thibodeau would be willing to give up on Butler after only one season, he has to change something. The least painful option would be benching Teague for Tyus Jones, a more traditional point guard. Minnesota had a net rating of plus-8.5 when Teague played with its other four starters (Butler, Wiggins, Towns, and Taj Gibson). That group with Jones had a net rating of plus-23.5.
11. Phoenix Suns — Devin Booker and Josh Jackson
This is a bit of a placeholder, since Phoenix may not go into the season with Booker at point, especially since he will miss the next five weeks while recovering from surgery to his shooting hand. The Suns just don’t have any other proven options at the position after trading Brandon Knight to the Rockets a few weeks ago. The only other point guards on their roster are rookies Elie Okobo and De’Anthony Melton and second-year guard Shaquille Harrison.
No matter what they do, their best lineups may end up featuring Booker at the point, even though he is more of a scorer at this stage in his career. The Suns have a lot of interesting wings: Jackson, T.J. Warren, Trevor Ariza, and Mikal Bridges, the no. 10 overall pick in this year’s draft. Jackson had an up-and-down rookie season, but he has a rare combination of skill and athleticism for a 6-foot-8 player. The key for him is improving his jumper: He shot only 26.3 percent from 3 on 2.8 attempts per game as a rookie. Making 3s consistently is the difference between Jackson being an All-Star and a sixth man.
12. Los Angeles Lakers — Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart
Lakers head coach Luke Walton has a lot of decisions to make in training camp. LeBron James and Brandon Ingram are the only locks to start. There’s a chance that the two will start at the 2 and 3, respectively, but they are almost certain to move up the position spectrum in smaller lineups to close games. That leaves both backcourt positions open to a crowded group of guards that includes Ball, Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and free-agent signings Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson.
Lonzo had offseason knee surgery, but he should be ready to go in training camp, and he’s too smart to not figure out a way to help the team. His shooting struggles as a rookie overshadowed what a well-rounded player he already is. If he improves as a shooter, he has the size to play as a 2 next to Rondo, but Walton will probably opt for more length and defensive versatility by going with Hart, KCP, or Stephenson at the position. And while Hart is the youngest of the three, he might also have the highest basketball IQ. Of all the young players in Los Angeles, Hart could benefit the most from playing with LeBron.
13. Dallas Mavericks — Dennis Smith Jr. and Wesley Matthews
The bottom of this list illustrates the downsides of starting rookie point guards, especially ones who spent only a season in college. There’s a steep learning curve for a player that young to even be decent in the NBA, and it makes everyone around them worse. Smith had an up-and-down rookie season in Dallas, but he showed flashes of talent. The big question for the Mavs is how well he’ll fit with Luka Doncic, the no. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, in a multiple-ball-handler offense. Matthews is one of the players who could benefit from the addition of a second playmaker in Doncic, but he’s still more of a locker-room presence than on-court contributor at this stage of his career.
14. Sacramento Kings — De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic
The Kings reaffirmed their commitment to Fox, the no. 5 overall pick in last year’s draft, by passing on Doncic. Fox is such a bad shooter (30.7 percent from 3 on 2.1 attempts per game) that they have to let him dominate the ball and hope his speed is enough for him to make plays for others. Sacramento was better last season when Frank Mason III, the no. 34 overall pick in last year’s draft, ran the offense. Mason, who is four years older than Fox, had real chemistry in the backcourt with Bogdanovic, a former EuroLeague champion who instantly became their best player as a 25-year-old rookie.
15. Los Angeles Clippers — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson
The Clippers will start the season with Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley in the backcourt, which would be the smallest in the league, with neither player taller than 6-foot-2. Those two would be higher on this list if I thought they would stay together all season, but Los Angeles probably doesn’t have enough elite talent to make the playoffs out West. They could end up moving Bradley and Beverley in order to embrace their youth movement and get a higher draft pick. The future of the franchise depends on SGA and Robinson, the young guards acquired at no. 11 and 13 overall in this year’s draft.