How Valuable Are Shooting Guards This NBA Season?
NBA fans, analysts, coaches and GM's alike often differ in their opinions as to which position is the most valuable for their team -- or NBA teams in general. Some prefer star power forwards and centers to be foundations such as Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis, and Marc Gasol.
I won't argue that they're not valuable. Each of those players has a nERD of 7.1 or above this season.
For those of you unfamiliar with our in-house metric, nERD, this number measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on his efficiency. So, what that means is the higher the number, the better the player is playing. And that means Duncan, Davis, and Gasol are all really good.
But, others yet would like their team to start with a star point guard -- after all, point guards are commonly the leaders and quarterbacks of a basketball team. It's not hard to see players that exemplify that for their teams today (See Paul, Chris; Wall, John; Curry, Steph.) But, there's many more than just those three. The list of really good point guards could go on and on with guys like Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and on and on and on. The depth is just too much though to say they're the most valuable.
So, with all that being said, what position is the most valuable to NBA teams? Well, as you can see, there are many answers to that question depending on who you ask -- and depending on which player a team actually has. But, as I looked at some of the shooting guards around the NBA, and the teams they play for, I might have found an answer. Shooting guards. I know, I know -- you may say, "Well, that's just your opinion." But, this isn't just me telling you this. This is what the numbers suggest based on the play of shooting guards this year and the results of their teams.
Let's see what those numbers have to say.
Who's Who Among NBA Shooting Guards
Before I move forward, I thought it would be good to chart the shooting guards of the league based on tiers.
To be qualified, each player must average at least 20 minutes and have played in at least 20 games.
For simplicity, the tiers earned names. The best being "elite," the next best "above average," then those who are "average," and, finally, those below average for which I'm using the term "liability." I have utilized nERD to determine which player belongs where based on their performance so far this season.
I've categorized shooting guards with nERDs of 5.0 or higher as the elite class. Those above average have a nERD of 1.0 or higher. Those who are classified as average are between 0.9 and -0.9 while below average is -1.0 or below, thus making them a liability more than an asset in the sense that they take wins from their teams. We'll address the notable liabilities. But, let's take a look at the breakdown.
|Above Average||Danny Green||4.8|
|Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe||4.1/3.4|
|J.J. Redick/Jamal Crawford||3.7/2.9|
|Average||Manu Ginobili/Marco Belinelli||0.6/0.3|
Well, we can all sit here and argue how good Kobe is 'til we're all blue in the face, but he just hasn't been the Kobe of old this season. So it's not the same as if James Harden was playing at the level he is while being on an 11-25 team. It's not an outlier. For crying out loud, Kobe has the single worst nERD of any eligible shooting guard in the league. Phew -- so, now that that's taken care of we can move on.
The Direct Correlation
It's not very hard to see the translation from shooting guard quality (or lack of it) to team quality and success. Starting from the very bottom, you can see that Kobe and Lance Stephenson, for all the talents they possess have had terrible seasons, and so have their respective teams as they've managed only 24 wins between them this season -- four fewer than the Warriors.
When you look at the next three names -- Dion Waiters, Tyreke Evans, and Ben McLemore -- things start to look a little better. They're not. Though the Cavs (now Waiters' old team), Pelicans, and Kings all have tallied at least 15 wins thus far, there's no question their shooting guards have not helped but actually hurt their teams. You could argue that all three of these players have acted as a weight holding down their superstar teammates.
For Waiters, he was taking shots away from LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, and now look where he's at. (Sorry KD.) As for Evans, he actually hasn't played half bad this season as he's managed nearly 17 points and over 5 assists per game. But he's shooting only 42% from the field and taking 15.5 attempts per game. That's more than teammate Jrue Holiday (14) and only 1.1 fewer than the nERD-king, Anthony Davis, who shoots nearly 57% from the floor. And then there's McLemore, who averages more turnovers than assists and really hurts the Kings defensively. Poor Boogie. Poor Rudy.
In the group of seven players in the chart, there's a mixture of surprises. For one, Swaggy P, for being on a very below average team, hasn't played too bad. He's been a very average wing guard. But then the three middle names -- Joe Johnson, Brad Beal and Monta Ellis stick out like a sore thumb.
But Johnson sticks out for a different reason than both Beal and Ellis. Johnson is a good player on a very mediocre team. The Nets sit at 16-19, but good enough for seventh in the East. So, maybe Johnson is a contributing factor to the mediocrity of Brooklyn, or maybe playing on a team like that is holding "Big Shot Joe" down to an average level.
Either way, you see the correlation. But where I don't see the correlation is in the cases of Ellis and Beal. Each plays for a contending team. The Mavericks are second in our power rankings while the Wizards are eleventh at 24-11. So, while many would agree that Ellis and Beal are both above average shooting guards, maybe they're not playing as well as they could be. Ellis is scoring 20 points per game but doing so on 17.5 shot attempts. Beal is scoring 15 points per game on 13 shots. Both could be more efficient, and both could improve defensively in order to help out their team even more. Ellis has a defensive rating of 108 -- 1.5 points worse than his team's overall rating. Beal has a defensive rating of 105 (not bad), but the Wiz as a whole are seventh in the league with a rating of 103.3.
The above average tier is full of shooting guards that you would likely expect there. When you look at each of their respective teams and where they fall in our power rankings, it makes perfect sense. The seven teams rank 9, 12, 13, 3, 16, 10, and 25. Most of these teams are in the upper part of the middle of the pack (9-16). They're above average but not great.
As for the third-ranked team, the Clippers, their shooting guards, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford, appear to have underachieved so far compared to the team's success. That's, in large part, due to the fact that Crawford is having his worst year as a Clipper with three-year lows in field goal percentage (41%), three-point percentage (34%), and points per game (15.8). Redick, on the other hand, is right around his career high in points per game (15.1) and is shooting 47% from the field and 42% from three -- both career highs. But, if you put the two together, they are an elite shooting guard with a nERD of 6.6 between them. So, depending on how you look at it, the Clippers are an elite team because of their successful shooting guard by committee.
As for Dwyane Wade, this is a little off. Or is it? As good as Wade has looked from time to time this year, scoring 23 points a game, he's just not D-Wade pre-LeBron. Without LeBron and without Chris Bosh for several games this year, Wade's struggled to be efficient and win games. He's shooting 3.6 more shots per game than he did last year but connecting on just 1.2 of those. That itself is 33%. But Wade's shooting a three-year low of 50% from the field too. After all, it's no surprise that Wade's nERD is the lowest of all the above average shooting guards and his team finds itself 25th in our power rankings.
As you can see, there's a premium on the elite shooting guards in the league. According to our metrics, there are six this year, as long as we're including Lou Williams in his 24 minutes per game with the Raps. Williams is the only "non-starter" among the six, but in the stead of star two-guard DeMar DeRozan, he's scoring nearly 15 points per game on 11 shots while shooting nearly 5 free throws a game in his 24 minutes. Wow. He's been a very efficient scorer and it's shown for Toronto. They are first in the league in offensive efficiency with a rating of 114.6.
The next two players aren't considered to be superstars in the league, but both are stars on their teams. Wesley Matthews isn't a flashy player, and he often takes a backseat to the other two Trail Blazer stars, but he's playing some great ball this year at shooting guard. He's scoring 16.6 points per night on 47% shooting and 40% from three. He's a sniper, but he's also defending at a high level. He's posting a career high 105 defensive rating on a Portland team second in the league in defensive rating. He's an efficient scorer and a great defender.
Kyle Korver knows a thing or two about being a ridiculously efficient scorer. He's fifth in offensive rating (126.3), second in free throw percentage (94%), second in three point percentage (51%), second in effective field goal percentage (67.8%,) and first in true shooting percentage (71.5%). Wow again. My fellow contributor, Brandon Gdula stopped short of calling Korver the best shooter ever, but he's certainly the best spot up shooter ever, and that's helped the Hawks get out to a 27-8 start. He's no superstar, can-do-it-all player, but Korver is the best of the elite shooters in the game now and maybe ever, so he's a huge asset for a team like the Hawks.
Then there's Thompson, Butler, and Harden. They're in a league of their own. All three average at least 21.6 points per game. Thompson does so very efficiently by shooting 46% and 44% from the floor and three, respectively. However, Butler and Harden set themselves apart with what they do in the rebounds and assists category on a nightly basis. Both average at least three assists per game while grabbing six rebounds per game. That's one reason why they crack the top five in nERD. But all three have two things in common: they play good defense and win. Butler, Thompson, and Harden have defensive ratings of 105, 101, and 100, individually. The elite are the elite for a good reason. They're great on both ends of the floor and do it all.
And the good to elite shooting guards may have a lot to say about whether a team is playoff-bound or not. There are thirteen teams, according to our metrics, that have over an 80% chance of making the playoffs. Of those thirteen, ten have either a shooting guard or shooting guard by committee that is above average or elite. Washington, Dallas, and Cleveland are the only three teams without a shooting guard in the upper two tiers.
In the meantime, Washington and Dallas should look for their shooting guards, Beal and Ellis, to pick up their game if they want to compete with the likes of the Rockets, Warriors, and Bulls come playoff time. And for teams starving for a shooting guard, Joe Johnson (previously mentioned) is still in Brooklyn looking to compete for a title. Give Jay a call.
And for the teams with a Harden, Thompson, Butler or elite shooting guard duo, it seems they have a leg up on most of the league. Of all the teams with elite shooting guards, the average win total is 25.5, and the average nERD is 67.8. That's why shooting guards are so valuable in this year's NBA.