I’m not big on ranking players, but I’ve decided to take this final week of the NBA’s summer to pick my top ten at each position for a few reasons. The first is that Mike Kahn has been ranking players on CBSSportsline.com, and I wanted to counter his picks with my own statistically-inclined opinion. You’ll see quite soon that we’ve diverged a bit on some of our picks. The second reason is that one of my first experiences with statistical analysis online – albeit with baseball – was Rob Neyer’s position rankings on ESPN.com more than three years ago. For a guy who hadn’t previously spent much time on the internet or statistically analyzing baseball, those were an eye-opener. The third and final reason is as a nod to my past as a basketball ‘analyst’ – as a kid, I’d spend countless hours ranking players by position, often by ranking them in individual statistical categories and then summing the totals. (Even at the age of 10, I was using per-48 minute numbers, thanks to Skybox and Fleer basketball cards.)
Let me explain up front the rules I’m playing by. I reserve the right to rank fewer than ten players if I can’t decide between several players. I’m generally considering players at the position I expect them to play this season, except when I’m unsure (this really only played a factor with Utah’s pair of swingmen and Portland’s power forwards). Please don’t e-mail me asking why I didn’t consider an obvious player if he may ranked at another position. I’m basing this not on where players ranked last year, but where I expect them to rank this year. I reserve the right to consider legacy as a factor, or not. Without further ado. . . .
The shooting guard has historically boasted some of the best players, especially offensively, in the NBA. The current crop is no disappointment. At the top of the NBA are two spectacular offensive players who finished one-two in the league in scoring last season. Beyond them are three more excellent offensive players who also ranked amongst the NBA’s top ten scorers. Unfortunately, it is true that the depth at shooting guard isn’t what it once was. Maybe it only seems to me like every team used to boast a legit scorer or well-rounded player at the two guard position, but certainly players like Trenton Hassell and Calbert Cheaney have a tough time living up to the name “shooting” guard.
The Rankings10. Allan Houston, New York
Do you think Houston ever regrets the contract he signed with the Knicks two summers ago? Probably not every two weeks, when he cashes his paychecks. But money can’t buy you love, or respect, and since getting his current contract, Houston has been known more for his salary than his play on the court. Houston clearly has his flaws; he’s a poor rebounder, defender, and passer. Still, he’s a gifted offensive player – a deadly accurate outside shooter who, unlike many of his peers, also has the ability to create his own shot from the perimeter. Houston is one of the best scorers in the league. Let’s remember him for that, not his salary.
9. Richard Hamilton, Detroit
Houston’s less-range equivalent. It was a question mark entering last season whether Hamilton could be a go-to scorer, but he handled the role with aplomb, proving that an offense designed for an entirely different type of shooting guard could work just fine with one who gets most of his offense going to the basket or with midrange jumpers. The cynical reply to this would be that the Pistons’ offense isn’t very good, but this simply isn’t true. I mentioned in discussing Ben Wallace in my power forward rankings that the Pistons’ pace – slowest in the NBA – made Detroit’s defense seem better than it was. The opposite is true on offense; the Pistons were a much better offensive team than they were given credit for. On a per-possession basis, the Pistons ranked 10th in the league in isolated offense – better than playoff opponents New Jersey and Philadelphia. Hamilton is an average rebounder and a decent defender despite his slight frame, which is why he beats out Houston despite being a worse offensive player.
8. Michael Redd, Milwaukee
Long-time readers of “Page 23” – yes, both of you – are probably getting tired of hearing me pimp Redd, but I vow not to stop until he makes an All-Star team (which may be a while; much as I like Redd, the East is loaded at shooting guard). Ranking Redd this low is in part a bow to convention – he ranked much higher than some of the players above him last season despite playing behind Gary Payton, Sam Cassell, and Ray Allen. Redd did play 2,300 minutes, so it’s hard to write off his extraordinary success to a limited minutes effect, and his defense can’t be used as a justification to ignore his rating either. Redd is an amazingly efficient player who is the second-leading three-point shooter in NBA history (not that it means that much this early in his career). With all three guards out of the picture, Redd will have a huge season if the Bucks lose 55 games.
7. Michael Finley, Dallas
Finley has the classic symptom of an overrated player – a high scoring average with an average true shooting percentage – but I think public consensus has him about right. Finley is still a very good offensive player, a very good rebounder for a shooting guard, and the best defender the Mavericks have now that Raja Bell has gone to Utah. Because of the latter fact, Finley is particularly valuable to the Mavericks, but there are few if any teams in the league that couldn’t use him. Adding to Finley’s value is his ability to consistently play around 40 minutes per game. While he probably won’t lead the league in minutes played again, Finley is almost always on the court when healthy.
6. Vince Carter, Toronto
As with Houston, the media and fans too often focus on what Carter does not do, ignoring the great things he does do. Carter has been nowhere near the same player the last two years that he was during his outstanding 2000-01 campaign, and he may never reach that level again. He still remains an elite shooting guard who can do things few others can. At the risk of stating the obvious, what Carter needs to do is remember how to get to the basket. He averaged .169 free throws per minute in 2000-01. That slid to .129 the next season, and all the way down to .109 last year. Carter isn’t a tremendous outside shooter, so he needs to use his athleticism to get in the lane and convert easy opportunities. The biggest key to that is Carter getting healthy after two injury-riddled seasons. The comparisons to Penny Hardaway are probably unfair to Carter. While both peaked in their third seasons and saw injury-caused declines the following year, Hardaway played just 19 games the year after that and was nowhere near his peak form. Though Carter’s scoring average was down last year, he bounced back a bit after his 2001-02 season. Carter looked healthy and confident while playing for Team USA this summer, and that could portend a comeback season.
5. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia
Let’s talk Iverson extension. Last week, I wrote that teams usually should forget about offering extensions to players on the verge of concluding their rookie contracts. Iverson’s situation is different, in that the Sixers would not have had matching rights when Iverson became a free agent. Still, just how many options would Iverson have had if he became a free agent? Iverson had a player option after this season, but just who was he going to sign with? Utah? Denver? The Clippers? Please. The prevailing opinion in Philadelphia seems to be that the Sixers didn’t really have any choice but to keep Iverson (this Inquirer column by Bill Lyon is a great example of this thinking). I don’t disagree – it’s hard to imagine a Sixers team of the future without Iverson. They still had a choice, however, the choice to allow Iverson to become a free agent. It’s difficult to say anything definitive about what free agency will look like in the summer of 2005 (when Iverson’s extension will kick in), as the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires following the 2004-05 season. Either way, it’s tough to imagine many teams will have $17 million in cap space to offer Iverson. Those that do will probably be poor teams Iverson would have little interest in playing for. The risk of allowing Iverson to go to free agency doesn’t seem that great to me – it’s extremely unlikely they would have had to pay him more money, and unlikely he would have left the Sixers altogether. At the same time, given Iverson’s frenetic style of play and his lithe frame, injuries have to be a major concern for Philadelphia going forward. Given Iverson’s unique ability and his drawing power, I don’t question that he’s worth the money he will be getting; the timing is a different question. As an outsider, I can’t say whether Iverson might have caused trouble if he didn’t receive an extension. Barring that explanation, however, extending him now is a poor decision.
4. Ray Allen, Seattle
After the season, Sonics GM Rick Sund told me the following about Allen: “To be very honest, I knew that Ray was a great shooter, but I didn't realize what a tremendous feel he has for the game.” Ditto. The day after the trade, I was watching the Sonics play the Bucks with a former Hoopsworld colleague, Ravi Singh. Ravi told me that what the Bucks would miss about Allen was having a guy capable of making plays off the dribble. I kinda disbelieved Ravi. Like Sund, I had the stereotype that Allen’s offense was all about shooting. After 30 games or so, I know better. The one word that describes Allen’s game is ‘smooth’. He just seems to glide to the basket at will. Once in the lane, his exceptional shooting ability and underrated passing makes him doubly dangerous. And yeah, he can shoot a little from the perimeter too. George Karl ripped Allen for his defense, but while Allen will never get any votes for Defensive Player of the Year, he can hold his own. He is definitely one of the top four shooting guards in the league, and not as far from number three as you might think.
3. Paul Pierce, Boston
Pierce saw his efficiency drop quite a bit last season after his outstanding 2001-02 campaign, but I’m going to ascribe that to general problems with the Celtics offense last season. As he proved during the playoffs, Pierce remains one of the most dangerous offensive players in the game when he gets hot. Pierce is not the ballhandler that the rest of the top five shooting guards are, but he’s an excellent rebounder who led all two guards in rebounds per game and was second to Quentin Richardson in rebound rate.
2. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
1. Tracy McGrady, Orlando
Arguably the biggest mistake Kahn made in any of his rankings was picking Bryant as the game’s best shooting guard over McGrady. They are both terrific players, but there is no question in mind that McGrady is the better of the two. The stats are coming at the end of the column, but how about a more detailed head-to-head comparison of McGrady and Bryant?
Player P48 TS% R48 A48 S48 B48 A/TO Eff VORP
McGrady 39.1 0.564 7.9 6.7 2.0 1.0 2.11 0.588 467
Bryant 34.7 0.550 8.0 6.8 2.6 0.9 1.67 0.559 439
Bryant’s advantages, with the exception of steals rate, are miniscule. Meanwhile, McGrady is a significantly better offensive player in terms of both efficiency and production. While the presence of Shaquille O’Neal might hurt Bryant’s scoring average, the fact that McGrady is so efficient despite the lack of a strong second scorer on the Magic’s roster is all the more remarkable. McGrady is also a better distributor. Granted, Bryant played a lot more minutes last season, but it seems to me you’d have to believe that Bryant is a vastly, vastly superior man defender to rate him ahead of McGrady. I don’t think the difference is nearly that great. McGrady is also younger and improving faster. At this point, with all due respect to Tim Duncan, McGrady is the NBA’s premier player. With an improved supporting cast around him, perhaps this is the year that McGrady’s Magic achieve the kind of team success that will allow McGrady to take that next step and win MVP. Bryant, meanwhile, must contend with the massive off-court distraction that is his current legal situation. It’s impossible to say just how this will affect Bryant, but I don’t see it allowing him to bridge the gap between him and McGrady any time soon.
Player PPG APG RPG TS% Pass Eff VORP
Tracy McGrady 32.1 5.5 6.5 0.564 2.93 0.588 467
Kobe Bryant 30.0 5.9 6.9 0.550 2.36 0.559 439
Paul Pierce 25.9 4.4 7.3 0.532 1.37 0.529 306
Ray Allen 22.5 4.4 5.0 0.565 1.96 0.538 310
Allen Iverson 27.6 5.5 4.2 0.500 2.07 0.510 279
Vince Carter 20.6 3.3 4.4 0.532 1.88 0.529 146
Michael Finley 19.3 3.0 5.8 0.514 1.40 0.498 178
Michael Redd 15.1 1.4 4.5 0.590 0.80 0.555 289
R. Hamilton 19.7 2.5 3.9 0.531 0.82 0.504 194
Allan Houston 22.5 2.7 2.8 0.563 0.87 0.512 254
TS% = points/(2*(fga+(.44*fta)))
Pass = 10*(ast/to)*(ast/min)
Eff is per-minute efficiency, VORP value over replacement player,
my own formulas explained here
The Honorable Mentions(Listed alphabetically)
Derek Anderson, Portland
There’s been a certain movement recently to suggest that playing with Tim Duncan makes shooting guards much better. ESPN Insider had a whole column suggesting as much, while Warriors radio broadcaster Tim Roye also mentioned it in a recent column. Stephen Jackson had a breakout season last year, no doubt about it, but he was also 25, wasn’t nearly as bad as you might think as a rookie with the New Jersey Nets in 2000-01, and wasn’t very good playing with Duncan the previous season. Derek Anderson is a key part of the argument, but see if you think Duncan really did a lot for him looking at the following chart of his last four seasons (these are the same stats as above, except efficiency has now been normalized for the year so that league-wide changes don’t affect the comparison, and I’ve added three-point percentage):
Year PPG RPG APG Pass 3P% RelEff VORP
2000 16.9 4.0 3.4 1.32 0.309 112.6 122
2001 15.5 4.4 3.7 1.92 0.399 115.2 187
2002 10.8 2.7 3.1 2.88 0.373 111.7 95
2003 13.9 3.5 4.3 3.23 0.350 115.3 168
Anderson showed improvement in 2000-01, but he was almost exactly the same player last season in Portland. His 2001-02 stats are affected by a sprained ankle that bothered him all season. While Duncan probably goes a long ways towards boosting his shooting guards’ three-point efforts, versatile players like Anderson and Jackson can be just as effective without him. At the same time, expecting Ron Mercer to suddenly become a productive player again by playing with Duncan is silly.
LeBron James, Cleveland
While I certainly don’t think Paul Silas’ decision not to play James at the point is a bad decision, I don’t think it’s really going to aid his development. Ricky Davis, Darius Miles, and Dajuan Wagner are all solid ballhandlers who can assist James. Even if he’s at the point, I don’t think he’d face that much ballhandling pressure. It’s impossible to predict how James will play this season – has there ever been a similar player? Bryant and McGrady are assumedly the best comparisons for James, though neither played nearly as many minutes. I’d expect him to play slightly better than either of them did, which would make him just good enough for the honorable mention list – and Rookie of the Year.
Eddie Jones, Miami
Jones was briefly good enough to be a go-to player during his time in Charlotte. He’s still paid like one, but now he’s a complementary player. Jones is still a quality, well-rounded player, and a strong argument could be made for ranking him in the top ten.
Jalen Rose, Chicago
A lot of people think Rose is overrated, but I don’t see how that can be – he’s not ‘rated’ that highly. After all, Rose has never made an All-Star team. Rose has the scoring average of a star, but that is due to him repeatedly putting the ball up more than anything else.
Jerry Stackhouse, Washington
Stackhouse is right there on the border of the top ten; a year ago, he definitely would have ranked there. In fact, I and most everyone else though the Stackhouse-for-Hamilton deal was a good one for the Wizards despite the differences in age. Now, Hamilton has to be considered the superior player. Why didn’t I put Stackhouse in the top ten? He provides basically as little in terms of defense and rebounding as Houston and Redd, but while he’s as prolific a scorer as they are, he isn’t nearly as efficient.
The Other StuffMost Underrated
Stephen Jackson, Free Agent
Jon Barry, Denver
David Wesley, New Orleans
Voshon Lenard, Denver
Cuttino Mobley, Houston
James Posey, Memphis
Joe Johnson, Phoenix
Ron Mercer, San Antonio
Top Rookies (keep in mind these are again based on this season only)
Troy Bell, Memphis
Keith Bogans, Orlando
Boris Diaw, Atlanta
Mickael Pietrus, Golden State
Emanuel Ginobili, San Antonio
Jason Richardson, Golden State
Dajuan Wagner, Cleveland
Gordan Giricek, Orlando
(Top young players not in the top ten/honorable mention)