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The Top 5 Guards in the NBA

Steph or Harden? Or maybe Luka? None of them topped our ranking of the best backcourt players in the league today.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Basketball is (maybe, hopefully) on the horizon. To help reintegrate us to a life of Giannis hammer dunks, James Harden dribbling for 24 seconds, and 76ers fans yelling at you for some reason, we’re rolling out top-five rankings in 20 different categories. All rankings were voted on by The Ringer staff unless noted.

Below is our list of the top five guards in the NBA today. For this ranking, positions are defined by Basketball-Reference’s designation for the 2019-20 season. For example, LeBron James is listed as a PG, so he’s a guard. Paul George is a SF, so he’s a wing. Giannis is a PF, so he’s a big. Injured players are also eligible. Here are the results.

5. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Lillard was snubbed from the All-Star Game so many times that he once released a diss track about it, back when that was a thing he didn’t do biweekly. Now, he’s entrenched as one of the game’s elite guards—best evidenced by the fact that no one other than this fivesome of ball handlers received multiple votes in our ballots. You can make a case for a revitalized Chris Paul, or perhaps binge scorers like Trae Young and Bradley Beal (the heir to Dame’s snub throne), but few can best Lillard’s combination of production, track record of success, and signature moments. He’s one of four players in NBA history to average at least 25 points and three made 3s in multiple seasons, and this season, he’s setting career highs in both categories (28.9 PPG, 3.9 made 3s). The Blazers as a whole have performed worse than they have since Dame’s rookie season, but it’s no fault of Lillard, who followed up tearing apart the PG-Russ era in OKC last postseason with one of the greatest scoring streaks in NBA history. He may not have a ring for his troubles, but the story of the past half-decade of the NBA can’t be written without Dame.

4. Luka Doncic, Mavericks

Only one other rookie has ever put up the numbers Doncic did last season: Oscar Robertson. Only two players, regardless of experience, have ever put up the numbers Doncic did in his encore: Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook. And neither accomplished the feat before his 22nd birthday. Trae Young is hardly a dud (at least on one side of the court), but he’d have to start playing like prime Michael Jordan at this point to catch up to Doncic’s virtually unprecedented trajectory. The 21-year-old wunderkind isn’t stat-padding on a lottery team, either. With Doncic powering the best offense in history, Dallas is not only a playful lock (barring a change in format), but a sleeper contender. It won’t be long until he’s higher on this list.

3. James Harden, Rockets

No one needed a break more than Harden. While the Rockets found something in even-smaller-ball, particularly Russell Westbrook, Harden’s one-man-offense routine started to show signs of fatigue. In the six games before the league shut down, the former MVP shot just 36 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3. Against the Hornets, he had a quadruple-double: 30 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds … and 10 turnovers. And yet, even if you factor in that slump, he was still averaging the 15th-most points in NBA history. It may not be pretty, but Harden is a prolific scorer rivaled only by Jordan in modern history. He’s basically Wilt Chamberlain with a step-back jumper. Imagine how high he can go after trading in the luxury yacht scene for a Peloton during the time off.

2. Steph Curry, Warriors

Curry played five forgettable games this season and still manages to outrank every non-LeBron guard in the league. That’s probably because things like this happen when he does play:

After sacrificing touches to Kevin Durant for three seasons, Steph was primed to shimmy more vigorously than ever. As The Ringer’s Zach Kram noted in the preseason, Curry’s per-minute production without KD or Klay Thompson the three prior seasons bested even Harden’s ostentatious scoring, and his preseason numbers were in the same ballpark. Multiple hand surgeries cut the Maximum Steph experiment short, but we got a small glimpse of what could be in the one game he played after missing 58 straight: 23 points, seven assists, and six rebounds in 27 minutes and every damn shot he wanted. With the Warriors unlikely to be bubble-worthy, Curry may never get that sort of free rein again. But with Thompson and a retooled supporting cast around him next season, and a clean bill of health after three straight campaigns marred by injury, Curry and the Warriors should be at the front of the pack for trophies yet again.

1. LeBron James, Lakers

LeBron was listed as a forward for a decade and a half, but he routinely ranked among the league leaders in usage rate during that same time. He’s been a primary ball handler all his life; the Lakers just made it official this season by starting him at “point guard.” James probably would’ve topped whatever position we lumped him into. At age 35, he’s averaging 26 points, eight rebounds, and a league-leading 11 assists for a team with the second-best record and probably the best shot at the title. And somehow, he was getting better as the season wore on: In his last 10 games, James averaged 30-9-10, with wins over the Nuggets, Pelicans (twice), Celtics, Bucks, and Clippers during that stretch.

We haven’t seen someone score this much this late into their career since Karl Malone—only, James is distributing like John Stockton, too. This was supposed to be the season LeBron fell off; instead, he’s turning in one of his most impressive performances yet.

Others receiving multiple votes: None