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Tiered NBA Rankings: Lead Guard Part 2

Ed Crisostomo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

This is the second part of a two-part article. If you missed the first part of the Lead Guard rankings or any of the other positions, you can view them here. Note the rankings are from bottom to top.

Lead Guards 8

Darren Collison quietly had one of the best seasons of his career before it was cut short due to injury. He was averaging more points per minute than at any point in his NBA life and doing it while carrying the highest usage percentage in five seasons. After DeMarcus Cousins, Collison may have been the biggest reason the Kings got off to a hot start. Collison still has troubles with longer players, as his 6-foot-3 wingspan is too short to bother opponents’ shots, but he has been known to cause turnovers averaging 1.5 steals per game last season.

The Detroit Pistons were criticized for the signing Reggie Jackson to a 5-year $80 million deal because other teams seemed unwilling to offer Jackson the same offer. However, if Jackson continues his performance from the last 27 games in Detroit last season, that contract may be a bargain after only a short time. In that 27-game span, he averaged 17.6 points, 9.2 assists 4.7 rebounds and a true shooting percentage of 51.1 percent. His efficiency needs to increase to become a true scoring threat, but his 2.63 assist-to-turnover ratio with the Pistons proves that he is a more than capable decision-maker with the ball.

The combination of Brad Stevens and Isaiah Thomas is one of the most intriguing combinations in the league. Stevens prefers a system in which the players on the court share the ball and move, but Thomas is an efficient, ball-dominant guard. Thomas shot only 41.1 percent from the field with the Celtics last season, but he his 86 percent on 6.5 free throw attempts per game raised his true shooting percentage to  57.9 percent.

Thomas and Lou Williams share many of the same scoring qualities. Like Thomas, Williams isn’t an elite three-point shooter (a career 34 percent shooter from long-range), he doesn’t score efficiently inside the three-point line (45.4 percent for his career), but his ability to get to the free throw line makes up for his deficiencies slightly. Among the 23 qualified players with at least a 25 percent usage percentage, only four players had a higher free throw rate than Lou Williams. Williams doesn’t do much else well as his assist to turnover ratio, defense and rebounding are all below average for his position, but it will be fun watching him, Kobe Bryant, Nick Young and the rest of the Lakers fight for shots this season.

Lead Guards 9

Ty Lawson has his troubles off the court, but when healthy and mentally right, he’s one of the most dynamic guards in the league. Lawson finished third in the league last season in assists per game, had a true shooting percentage around league average and did so while turning the ball over at an extremely low rate. Like plenty of others on this list, Lawson doesn’t defend his position well but he can turn force turnovers at a decent rate, averaging 1.2 steals per game last season.

Once upon a time, the Minnesota Timberwolves refused to give Kevin Love a five-year contract in order to save it for Ricky Rubio. While that decision seems misguided now, Rubio is still one of the more talented guards in the league.

Yes, he is one of the worst scorers in the league, and his true shooting percentage reflects that. However, Rubio does almost everything else well on the court. He was one of two players to average more than 5.5 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game last season, albeit in only 22 games. His defense is one of the best at his position, and his ability to force turnovers complements his ability to lead a fast break. The caveat with Rubio has always been his health, and it seems to be rearing its ugly head once again.

Lead Guards 10

George Hill has been the secondary, and sometimes tertiary, ball-handler during his time in Indiana. From Lance Stephenson to Paul George, the Pacers seemed to believe the team had a better option to initiate the offense, and mostly for good reasons. Last season was a different story, however, as Stephenson left via free agency, and George suffered a horrific leg injury in the summer.

Although Hill had his injury concerns that forced him to miss the first half of the season, he made a case for himself as he had career highs in points, assists and rebounds per game while having the second highest true shooting percentage of his career. The Pacers rewarded him by signing Monta Ellis, a ball-dominant guard, to a three-year deal (and a player option for a fourth year).

It almost seems blasphemous to see Tony Parker not near the top guards on the list, but his play last season warrants this placement. Parker didn’t have a bad season by the numbers – 14.4 points and 4.9 assists on a 53.9 percent true shooting percentage, but it was his worst season in ten years. Parker’s finishing ability diminished as he shot below 60 percent within three feet for the first time since his rookie season, and although his assist numbers have never been to the level of Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo, his assist-to-turnover ratio has fallen each of the past three seasons.

Jeff Teague was one of the major benefactors from another season under Hawks’ coach Mike Budenholzer. “Playoff Teague” turned into “Regular Season Teague” as he had the highest true shooting percentage of his career at 56.6 percent. Although he’s never been an elite three-point shooter, he benefited from the open shots that Budenholzer’s system creates by shooting 34 percent from three-point range. Teague was also able to keep his assist-to-turnover ratio consistent as it’s been between 2.38 and 2.5 the last three seasons.

Lead Guards 11

Eric Bledsoe showed he can be a full-time starter last season as it was the first in his career that he has played in, and started, almost every game (81 of 82). Bledsoe rewarded the Suns with an impressive raw stat line: 17 points, 6.1 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 0.6 blocks per game. Though, controversy marred the start of last season with the signing of Isaiah Thomas while Goran Dragic and Bledsoe were already on the roster, Bledsoe was able to put up impressive numbers despite the other two ball-dominant players. Bledsoe’s best quality might be his ability to provide excellent defense for the duration of his time on the court while combining for over two steals and blocks per game.

Goran Dragic is one of the most underappreciated guards in the league offensively. The lefty converted 69.9 percent of his shots within three feet last season despite only dunking once. Among players that had at least 100 attempts within three feet, only George Hill and Shaun Livingston had a better percentage among guards. Dragic has been a good distributor in the past, although, his assist-to-turnover ratio dipped last season. The detriment in Dragic’s game is his defense, but with Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside behind him this year, it may not be as obvious this season.

Portland lost their highest usage player in LaMarcus Aldridge this off-season, but Damian Lillard has an argument he was the Blazer’s MVP last season. His three-point percentage dropped from 39.4 percent in 2014 to 34.3 percent last season, but his true shooting percentage saw only a slight decline due to his two-point percentage rising from 44.7 percent to 50 percent. Lillard doesn’t create as many shots for his teammates as some of his counterparts, but he doesn’t turn the ball over as often, either.

In order to climb higher on this list, he needs to improve his defense. The Blazer’s defensive scheme doesn’t complement Lillard’s weaknesses on defense, but he can make adjustments to improve on that end of the court.

Lead Guards 12

The Grizzlies probably wouldn’t have beaten the Warriors in last year’s playoffs if Mike Conley was fully healthy, but they definitely would have made it a more challenging series. Conley initiates an offense predicated on slowing the pace down, and he has done as well as could have hoped for the past few seasons. Conley helped the offense last season by improving his three-point percentage to 38.6 percent on 4.5 attempts per game. Conley maintains his offensive production while making life difficult for opposing guards. He’s one of the position’s best defenders due to his near 6-foot-6 wingspan.

Kyrie Irving received a controversial maximum extension last summer, and much like Reggie Jackson plans to do this year, Irving proved last year that it was the right decision. Irving’s 2014 shooting from three-point range seems to have been an aberration as it improved to 41.5 percent last season. While most of the ball-handling duties were handed over to new arrival LeBron James last season, Irving was still an above-average distributor.

He also improved his defense last season, but that improvement merely made his defense “not atrocious”. Irving still gets stuck on screens and is often caught in no man’s land, but the rim protectors behind him may be able to negate his negative impact.

John Wall is a divisive player considering the contributions he brings to the court. Wall isn’t a good shooter, but if teams lay off him daring him to shoot, Wall can use that space as a running start to blow by the defense. Wall had a high assist-to-turnover ratio due to his play-making ability and athletic ability. He has the speed, quickness and size to blow by larger defenders and muscle smaller defenders to get where he needs to be. Wall also uses his abilities on the defensive end and makes life difficult for the opposition. Wall tended to gamble too often for steals early in his career but has since combined his athleticism and knowledge to know when to gamble and when to stay in front of his man.

Lead Guards 13

No player gave defenses more headaches than Stephen Curry last season. For the third consecutive season, Curry led the league in both three-point attempts and three-point makes last season, but also added a league-high 163 total steals during his MVP campaign. Curry’s ability to make three-pointers at a high clip combined with his ability to find the open man leaves puts pressure on the defenders to be on the toes at all times, and if they aren’t:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xag56Gd_XUI

While he didn’t win the MVP, an argument can be made no player was as critical to his team as James Harden was to the Rockets. He led the league in total minutes with 2,981 (36.8 per game), was one of the most efficient players in the league and took a pounding from defenses every night averaging over 10 free throw attempts per game. Harden wasn’t surrounded with the talent that some of his MVP-level counterparts were, either, as Dwight Howard missed half of the 2013-2014 season with various injuries. Harden also has the most unstoppable offensive move in the game making a fool of many opponents in isolation:

He’s short, not known for his length and will turn 31 at the end of this season, but until Chris Paul shows that he’s no longer the Point God, he’ll continue to be known as one of the best in the game. Paul is the best distributor in the NBA, has been an elite defensive guard for the majority of his career and still scores at an incredibly efficient level. Much like Harden and Curry, Paul also has a move he’s famous for:

I debated putting Russell Westbrook on a tier by himself just below the other three, but in the end the pressure he puts on defenses on a nightly basis seems like enough to justify his position. Westbrook had an incredible 16-game stretch last season in which he averaged 31.6 points, 11.3 assists and 9.6 rebounds. He did so despite defenses knowing he was going to be the only Thunder player that consistently had the ball in his hands, and time after time forced defenses out of their original game plan due to his ferocity. His defense wasn’t good last season, but hopefully some of this can be due to the load he was forced to carry on offense. Unlike the other three players, Westbrook doesn’t have a singular move that impresses fans, but this one might be the most representative of his style of play.

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