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#pounditSunday, November 27, 2022

Ranking the 10 best backcourts in the NBA

The Houston Rockets are making power moves this offseason. Despite the Warriors’ Western Conference dominance, Daryl Morey and company see this — the prime of James Harden’s career — as their window to make a title run, and they don’t plan on wasting it.

The rest of the league watched as the Clippers missed their window. A team led by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan — three All-NBA players — proved unable to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs, largely because the organization was unable to find a reliable small forward.

When you’re in that just-below-championship echelon, you can’t sit around and hope things fall into place. You need to make moves to win titles…now.

Thus, the Rockets took a risk and assembled one of the best backcourts in the league. They traded a bevy of young players and a first-round pick for Paul, putting two of the best offensive guards in the game in the same starting lineup. Morey said they’ve “closed the gap” on Golden State.

So, where does this new duo in Houston fall among the best in the league? Below is my perspective on the 10 best guard pairings in the NBA.

10. Charlotte Hornets — Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum

Charlotte may have acquired a franchise player when Malik Monk fell to the Hornets at No. 11 in June’s NBA draft. If Monk and Walker can play together — will Walker be willing to defer to the shot-happy Monk? — this could blossom into one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league, similar to what Portland has with Lillard and McCollum.

In the meantime, however, Charlotte is rolling with Kemba and Batum, and that’s a pretty solid crew.

Kemba is one of the most popular guys in the league; he claimed this year’s Sportsmanship Award, as voted on by his peers.

He’s also a skilled point guard, though he struggles a bit in the pick and roll. He averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game this year, and is a perennial All-Star contender.

Batum, a 28-year-old who has been in the league for about 25 years, is one of those do-a-little-bit-of-everything guys. He fills up the stat sheet. Last year he averaged 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game.

When his 3-point shot is falling, he’s also capable of random offensive explosions. Late in the season he dropped 31 on Boston.

9. Miami Heat — Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters

These two oddballs have found a home in Miami, where Pat Riley has managed to keep the organization competitive post-Big Three. Waiters exploded this past year, then re-signed for four years and $52 million, though other teams sought his services.

It had looked like Waiters would always be one of those “skilled but could never put it all together” guards after a rough ending in Cleveland and mediocre two years in Oklahoma City, but he rebounded this year. He put up 15.8 points, 4.3 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game.

Dragic, meanwhile, matched career highs of 20.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He also shot 41 percent from three, his highest mark since his breakout 2013-14 campaign with Phoenix.

Somehow, some way, these two fit together quite nicely. Lots of credit is due to Erik Spoelstra.

The Heat are still one or two pieces away from contending (they missed out in free agency), but they don’t need a guard to be their best player — they can build around Hassan Whiteside — and Dragic and Waiters seem to be just what Miami needs right now.

8. Phoenix Suns — Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker

Bledsoe, a first-round pick out of Kentucky in 2010, has gotten better every year. This season he put up a career-best 21.1 points per game. His free throw shooting also continues to improve. He got up to 85 percent from the line this year and went to the stripe a career-best 6.9 times a game.

Booker’s offensive game is incredible; this is not breaking news. He was also a first-rounder out of Kentucky (13th overall in 2015), and we got a glimpse at his scoring ability with the Wildcats and as a rookie. This past season, however, was the Devin Booker Year. He put up 70 in a March game, becoming the youngest player ever to score more than 60 in a game. He’s still only 20 years old and has maturity beyond his years.

These two are fun to watch, and they’re surrounded by an interesting young core that includes Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson, Tyler Ulis, and Dragan Bender.

Bledsoe had some knee issues that caused the Suns to shut him down for the season in March, so that’s something to watch, but Phoenix is excited about its promising young backcourt.

“Bled’s been great, he had a great season, he played at a high level,” coach Earl Watson said of Bledsoe, per AZCentral. “He’s been dominant all year. He’s taken a big leap in the right direction. There’s a lot of room for him to grow and he’s excited about that.”

7. Cleveland Cavaliers — Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith

Kyrie, arguably one of the two best point guards in the NBA, is hampered here by his running mate. Don’t get me wrong: the man nicknamed “Swish” sure can shoot it, but he doesn’t do much else.

Irving is a star among stars, a clutch performer who lives for the big moment. He’s even managed to repeatedly look like the best player on the court while playing with LeBron James, the best player of this generation. That says a lot about Uncle Drew’s ability. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he became a serious MVP contender at some point in his career.

Smith, meanwhile, is hot and cold; he’s yes then he’s no. He really found his stride after being traded to Cleveland, but he had a rough year in 2016-17. His per-game scoring numbers dipped from 12.7 (2015) and 12.4 (2016) to 8.6 (2017). Additionally, his 3-point shooting dipped from 40 percent (2016) to 35 percent (2017).

Though Smith had surgery on his right thumb and spent part of the season recovering, Cleveland needed more from him if the Cavs were going to repeat as champs.

6. Portland Trailblazers — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum

The Blazers hit the ball out of the park in the 2012 and 2013 drafts, using first-round picks on Lillard (sixth overall) and McCollum (1oth overall), respectively.

This young corps has so much skill. Their exposure to the casual fan has been limited because Portland has had trouble advancing in the West and hasn’t played much on national TV.

Lillard was an immediate-impact guy out of Weber State, and he’s been one of the best offensive point guards (and perhaps the best rapper) in the NBA since he entered the league.

McCollum, on the other hand, has developed greatly throughout his career. He spent some time in the D-League as a rookie, and was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2016. He took a big leap forward when Wesley Matthews left Portland to sign with Dallas.

This year, McCollum averaged 23.0 points per game on career-best 42 percent (!) three-point shooting. Lillard also put up a career-best 27.8 points per game.

The Blazers are in a tough spot financially, but at least they know their backcourt is set for the future.

See Nos. 1-5 on Page 2

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